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Introduction: The Origin and Development of Olmec Research

Karl A. Taube

In 1912, when Robert Woods Bliss acquired a fine Olmec statuette as his first Pre-Columbian object, little was known of the Olmec and their relation to other cultures of ancient Mesoamerica. In fact, when Bliss purchased this jade sculpture (PC.B.014), it was described as Aztec. Decades earlier, José María Melgar y Serrano (1869) published the first account of an Olmec monument (Monument A), a colossal stone head, at the site of Tres Zapotes (Figure 0.1). However, Melgar y Serrano saw "Africoid" features and linked the figure to Africa, rather than recognizing it as a product of the Pre-Columbian Americas. Subsequently, Alfredo Chavero (1887) also identified the head as Africoid, but additionally noted that a motif on the brow resembled certain Asian signs. To this day, the Olmec continue to be traced to such distant regions as Africa and China (González Calderón 1991; Thompson 1989; Van Sertima 1976; Xu 1996).Arguments for Old World contacts are frequently based on superficial visual resemblances. A particularly egregious example appeared in the U.S. News and World Report. According to Shang scholar Han Ping Chen, one of the miniature jade stelae from La Venta Offering 4 contains a readable Chinese text (Fenyvesi 1996). It has been known for some time, however, that these miniature stelae derive from halves of incised celts cut along the central long axis. Two of the incised Offering 4 “stelae” are parts of the same incised celt, which portrayed a flying figure holding a knuckle-duster and maize ear fetish (see Cervantes 1969:fig. 11). As for the purported incised Shang text, it constitutes half of a frontally facing depiction of the Olmec maize god. For a reconstruction of the entire figure, see Reilly 1994b:fig. 4.51. The archaeological evidence argues for an entirely Indigenous development, however, and many Olmec traits are traceable to earlier cultures of Early Formative Mesoamerica. There simply is no material evidence of contact between the Old World and Mesoamerica before the sixteenth-century arrival of the Spanish.

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Figure 0.1. Tres Zapotes, Veracruz. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2019.

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Figure 0.2. The Tuxtla Mountains, view from Lake Catemaco. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2019.

Following the publication of the Tres Zapotes sculpture, smaller portable objects in Olmec style were obtained by early collectors. Among these were beautifully but also strangely carved stone axe heads, including the massive jadeite Kunz Axe (Saville 1929). But it was not until the 1925 explorations of Frans Ferdinand Blom and Oliver La Farge (1926–1927; see also Berrin and Fields 2010:pl. 2v) that the Olmec style was associated with a specific geographical area. Blom and La Farge were the first to publish on the large Olmec site of La Venta and a number of its important stone sculptures. In addition, they reported the remarkable monument in pure Olmec style from the summit of San Martín Pajapan in the Tuxtla Mountains, the source of igneous basalt and andesite for Olmec monuments (Figure 0.2; see also Figure 18.2a). In contrast to celts and other portable objects, the massive stone monuments created by the Olmec from this region precluded transportation over vast distances; instead, they clearly were carved in the local southern Gulf Coast region of Veracruz and neighboring Tabasco.

Although Blom and La Farge were the first to document a major corpus of Olmec monuments, they perceived these sculptures in terms of the better-known Classic Maya remains. Thus, although they noted that some traits at La Venta could be compared with sculptures from the Tuxtla region of Veracruz, they believed that a number of La Venta monuments suggested a Maya identity: “The Maya features upon Stela 2, the standing figure with diagonal ceremonial bar and huge headdress, and in Altars 3 and 4, are so strong that we are inclined to ascribe these ruins to the Maya culture” (Blom and La Farge 1926–1927:90). But other researchers were beginning to define the Olmec as a distinct people and culture. In 1892, Francisco del Paso y Troncoso described a number of ceramic figures from Puebla and Guerrero as “Olmec” in type (Paso y Troncoso 1892; Piña Chán 1989:25). In a review of the Blom and La Farge publication, Hermann Beyer (1927) used the term Olmecan to refer to a number of objects from the Gulf Coast region. Soon after, Marshall H. Saville (1929) provided a far more detailed discussion of the Olmec art style and its distribution. Saville called attention to the distinctive protruding lip commonly found on Olmec faces, which he described as “tiger masks.” Due to the San Martín Pajapan monument, Saville argued that this style was centered in the southern Gulf Coast region: “This peculiar type of mask may be safely assigned to the ancient Olmecan culture, which apparently had its center in the San Andrés Tuxtla area around Lake Catemaco, and extended down to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the southern part of Vera Cruz” (Saville 1929:284–285). Several years later, George C. Vaillant (1932) also used the term Olmec to refer to the jadeite Necaxa Statuette, which was previously considered Chinese (see Figure 15.2c). In addition, Vaillant called attention to many other sculptures of Olmec style, including related “baby face” forms.

The use of the term Olmec by Beyer, Saville, and Vaillant is based primarily on geographic rather than temporal considerations. The name Olmec, or Olmeca in Spanish, derives from the contact-period Gulf Coast culture documented by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1950–1982:10:187–188) and other early colonial sources (Jiménez Moreno 1942). Given the poor understanding of ancient Mesoamerican chronology, it is not surprising that Vaillant included objects dating from the Early Formative to the Late Postclassic period in his discussion of the Olmec style. He considered the Olmec an ancient race that was forced by other developing cultures into the Gulf Coast and neighboring regions: “It seems possible that the bearded flat-nosed people [ancestral Olmec] may have been driven back through the rise of the Nahua and Maya tribes in early times and later achieved their artistic evolution in the Vera Cruz–Oaxaca–Puebla region” (Vaillant 1932:518). According to Vaillant, the ancient Olmec art style and the contact-period Olmeca were one and the same. Although it is now clear that the striking art style of “tiger masks” and “baby faces” is far earlier than the contact-period Olmeca, the Olmec appellation continues to this day. Many have bemoaned the naming of an especially early culture after a contact-period people, but there is no confusion in current studies. In fact, the term Olmec is now far more commonly used for the Formative culture (1200–500 BCE) than for its older namesake. In this volume, Olmec refers specifically to the Formative culture and its art style.

By the 1930s, a number of scholars recognized the southern Gulf Coast as the heartland of the Olmec style. Systematic excavation did not begin in this region until 1939, however, when Matthew W. Stirling launched a two-year project at Tres Zapotes. With support from National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution, Stirling continued to work in this region until 1949. Along with Tres Zapotes, he engaged in excavations at Cerro de las Mesas, La Venta, and the great site of San Lorenzo (Coe 1968). From the beginning, Stirling was convinced of the antiquity and importance of the Olmec: “Present archaeological evidence indicates that their culture, which in many respects reached a high level, is very early and may well be the basic civilization out of which developed such high art centers as those of the Maya, Zapotecs, Toltecs, and Totonacs” (Stirling 1940:333).

During his first season at Tres Zapotes, Stirling had the good fortune to find Stela C (Figure 0.3), a monument that suggested the Olmec were a very early Mesoamerican culture. Whereas the stela front displays a face with strong Olmec features, its back bears a Long Count date, a calendrical system that was already well-known for the Classic Maya. Long Count dates typically begin with the highest unit of time, the baktun, corresponding to roughly four hundred years. Although Stirling found only the base of the monument, he reconstructed the missing baktun coefficient as seven, providing a complete date corresponding to 31 BCE. Although certain archaeologists of the time, particularly Mayanists, objected to such an early date, it is now evident that Tres Zapotes Stela C is actually a post-Olmec monument, carved some four hundred years after the Olmec demise.

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Figure 0.3. Tres Zapotes Stela C. Drawing courtesy of James B. Porter.

Stirling was not alone in his assertions of Olmec antiquity. In his early discussion of the Olmec style, Vaillant (1932:519) noted that a hollow ceramic “baby face” figure from Gualupita, Morelos, in Central Mexico, was discovered “under conditions of considerable age.” Although Vaillant considered the striking Olmec style to be generally contemporaneous to the contact-period Olmeca, he was in an excellent position to assess the Gualupita find. His pioneering excavations at Zacatenco, Gualupita, El Arbolillo, and Ticoman were fundamental in establishing the Formative chronology of the Basin of Mexico (Vaillant 1930, 1931, 1932, 1935; Vaillant and Vaillant 1934). At Gualupita, other hollow Olmec-style “baby face” figures were discovered (Vaillant and Vaillant 1934:figs. 14–15). The excavators noted the similarity of these hollow figures to solid figurines, some of which display Olmec features (Vaillant and Vaillant 1934:50, 53, fig. 19, no. 3). One of the figurine types mentioned, Type D, was previously documented by Vaillant (1930:114–119) at Zacatenco and other highland sites. Although Vaillant recognized these as early, the major site containing Type D figurines was yet to be discovered. Beginning in 1936, brick workers at Tlatilco began discovering great numbers of these figurines along with vessels and other artifacts, some in pure Olmec style (e.g., the basalt yuguito in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection; PC.B.002). Conveniently located on what was then the outskirts of Mexico City, Tlatilco soon drew interested collectors who avidly purchased finds from local brick workers. In her recent doctoral dissertation, Catarina Santasilia (2019) documented in great detail not only the initial discovery of Tlatilco, but also the seasons of systematic excavations and the massive corpus of material from this site, especially small ceramic figurines. One of the frequent visitors and eventual excavator at the site was the noted writer and artist Miguel Covarrubias, who, with Stirling, ranks as one of the great pioneers of Olmec studies (Figure 0.4). Covarrubias was convinced of the great antiquity and importance of the Olmec, and he visited the Stirlings during their Gulf Coast excavations.

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Figure 0.4. Excavations at Tlatilco: in the photograph are Miguel Covarrubias, Román Piña Chán, and Hellmut de Terra. Photograph courtesy of Catarina Santasilia.

Aside from Central Mexico and the Gulf Coast, early remains with Olmec-style facial features also began to be discovered in Oaxaca. Alfonso Caso (1938:94) recognized that a number of vessels displayed Olmec-style features in the earliest levels at Monte Albán, or Monte Albán I. Subsequent excavations at the Monte Albán I site of Monte Negro corroborated the association of the Olmec style with Formative Oaxacan remains (Caso 1942b). It is now apparent that, like Tres Zapotes Stela C, these urns are post-Olmec (Scott 1978:12). Nonetheless, the association of these Olmec-related urns with what was then the earliest-known Zapotec phase convinced Caso that the Olmec were a very early Mesoamerican culture. As it turns out, such early Zapotec vessels are probably depictions of their maize deity, and bear a striking resemblance to both the Olmec maize god and the earliest Maya forms of the same deity (e.g., Figure 0.5).

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Figure 0.5. Monte Albán I vessel portraying a probable image of the Zapotec maize god. Yale University Art Gallery, 2017.14.28. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2018.

By the early 1940s, excavations in the Gulf Coast, highland Mexico, and Oaxaca had led a growing body of scholars to believe that the Olmec were an ancient and widespread culture. In 1942, a watershed conference was held in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. Although devoted to the archaeology and ethnohistory of southeastern Mesoamerica, the meeting focused especially on the “Olmec problem”—that is, the cultural and temporal relationship of the Olmec to other Mesoamerican cultures. The noted ethnohistorian Wigberto Jiménez Moreno (1942:23) placed the remains at La Venta well before the Olmeca documented in early colonial texts. In his well-known position paper, Caso forcefully argued that the Olmec were indeed the cultura madre of Mesoamerica, claiming that “esta gran cultura, que encontramos en niveles antiguos, es sin duda madre de otras culturas, como la maya, la teotihuacana, la zapoteca, la de El Tajín, y otras” (this great culture, which we encounter in ancient levels, is without doubt mother of other cultures, such as the Maya, the Teotihuacan, the Zapotec, that of El Tajín, and others) (Caso 1942a:46). During the same session, Covarrubias noted that the Olmec style is most closely related to the earliest examples of art from Teotihuacan, the Maya, and the Zapotecs. As a result of these and other papers, the conference concluded that the Olmec of La Venta constituted a very early culture in Mesoamerica.

Not all scholars agreed with the findings of the 1942 conference, however. Two of the best-known Mayanists, J. Eric S. Thompson and Sylvanus G. Morley, argued that the Olmec were not extremely early. In a long and detailed essay, Thompson suggested that the Olmec were actually a Postclassic culture sharing many traits with the Cotzumalhuapa style known at such sites as El Baul and Bilbao, Guatemala. According to Thompson (1941:48), the famed colossal heads were actually very late: “Inconclusive evidence tends to place the colossal stone heads of the Olmec region about AD 1100–1450.” Thompson was particularly concerned with Tres Zapotes Stela C and its reputed early Long Count date. With little justification, Thompson argued that the dates appearing on Stela C, the jadeite Tuxtla Statuette, and El Baul Monument 1 are not identical to the Long Count system known for the Classic Maya, but are instead based on a four-hundred-day year.

Although it is now clear that Thompson was far off the mark in his dating of the Olmec, his opinions held considerable sway among fellow archaeologists. His friend and colleague Morley aggressively questioned the dating of Tres Zapotes Stela C and other early non-Maya Long Count inscriptions in his popular work The Ancient Maya: “These doubtful, and indeed disputed, possibly earlier dates are by no means clear, however; they create a situation such as would arise if we were to find a Gothic cathedral dating from 1000 BCE, or a skyscraper with the year 1492 carved on its corresponding cornerstone—obvious anachronisms. These few scattering dates are only apparently very early, I believe, all of them having actually been carved at much later dates than they appear to represent” (Morley 1946:40–41).

Morley’s tone is curiously polemic, as if he were personally offended that there could be Long Count dates before those of his beloved Classic Maya. Although not mentioning Stirling by name, Morley suggested that the reconstructed date of Tres Zapotes Stela C was essentially an epigraphic sleight of hand, since “in the case of the Tres Zapotes monument, the first number at the left, 7, which makes it so unbelievably early, is entirely missing in the original and has only been restored as 7, out of the blue, by those who believe in the maximum antiquity of this carving” (Morley 1946:41). Although Morley challenged the reconstructed baktun 7 date, Stirling was entirely vindicated in 1969, when the upper half of Stela C was discovered. The upper portion of the monument clearly bears a baktun 7 coefficient, making it one of the earliest monuments having a contemporaneous Long Count date (Fuente 1977a:26).

Due to the arguments of Thompson, Morley, and others, the age of the Olmec remained in doubt until the late 1950s. Although many regarded the evidence provided by ceramic seriation and cross-dating with other, better-known cultures as compelling, it was the unexpected advent of radiocarbon dating that once and for all established the great antiquity of the Formative Olmec. The first published radiocarbon dates from the Olmec occupation of La Venta ranged from 1154 to 574 BCE (Figure 0.6). According to the excavators at La Venta, the major Olmec occupation occurred between 800 and 400 BCE (Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959:265). Subsequent excavations at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo provided even earlier radiocarbon dates. Here, ten of the twelve samples corresponding to the florescence of the site ranged from 1150 to 920 ± 140 BCE (Coe and Diehl 1980:1:395–396). Combined with the relative dating methods of seriation and cross-dating, the radiocarbon dates provided convincing evidence that the Olmec were exceptionally ancient.In this catalogue, all radiocarbon dates and chronology are based on the more widely used uncalibrated radiocarbon years rather than “corrected” radiocarbon dates calibrated with dendrochronology, which tend to be several centuries earlier for the Formative Olmec period. Moreover, more recent excavations have documented the development of the Olmec out of still earlier Formative cultures.

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Figure 0.6. Postcard by Robert F. Heizer to Michael D. Coe, describing radiocarbon dates from La Venta with postmark dated December 16, 1964. Photograph courtesy of Michael D. Coe.


The Soconusco and the Early Formative Origins of the Olmec

Although the Olmec were extremely early, they did not appear ex nihilo, like some wondrous mushroom, out of the swampy Gulf Coast lowlands. Many of the more fundamental Olmec traits, such as social hierarchy, ceramics, food production, monumental architecture, craft specialization, the ballgame, dedicatory offerings, and the restricted use of jade and other rare, exotic goods were already present among earlier Formative cultures. Although similar and contemporaneous developments were surely occurring in the Olmec heartland, the incipient Formative period is best documented for the nearby coastal piedmont region of southern Chiapas and neighboring Guatemala, often referred to as the Soconusco (Blake 1991; Blake et al. 1995; Ceja Tenorio 1985; Clark 1991, 1994; Clark and Blake 1989, 1994; Coe 1961; Green and Lowe 1967; Love 1991; Lowe 1975; Rosenswig 2010). John E. Clark and Michael Blake (1989) aptly term the Early Formative people of this region Mokaya, a Mixe-Zoquean word for “the people of corn.” But although maize is documented at Mokaya sites, it probably was not the primary staple. The ears of recovered specimens are small and relatively unproductive, and chemical analysis of Mokaya human bone collagen reveals that type C-4 pathway plants, such as maize, were not a significant part of the local diet (Blake et al. 1992; Clark and Blake 1989:389).Early Formative maize, roughly contemporaneous with the Mokaya Locona phase (1400–1250 BCE), has also been documented for central coastal Guatemala and western El Salvador (Arroyo 1995:205). The term C-4 pathway refers to a complex relationship between a number of distinct plants and body metabolism and is used in analyses of human bone collagen to determine ancient diets. Type C-4 plants, such as maize, tend to naturally derive from relatively arid environments. In lowland Mesoamerica, maize is the most likely C-4 plant to be found in skeletal remains, including those of the Olmec. Thus, although the Mokaya were sedentary villagers engaged in food production, they probably practiced a mixed economy of farming, hunting, fishing, and collecting wild resources (Clark and Blake 1989).

Along with settled village life and food production, ceramics constitute one of the defining traits of the Mesoamerican Formative period. In the south coastal region, pottery first appears in the earliest Mokaya phase, known as Barra (1550–1400 BCE). But although this pottery is among the earliest known for Mesoamerica, it is already surprisingly sophisticated, with a wide variety of forms and surface decoration (see Clark 1994:fig. 3.2). Noting the lack of Barra-phase plain ware, Clark and Blake (1994) suggest the fancy ceramics were used as serving vessels in competitive feasting, such as occur in traditional “big man” societies of Melanesia. Early pottery may, thus, have been carefully made and decorated because it was linked to activities that gained prestige for the sponsors of such feasts.

By the following Locona phase (1400–1250 BCE), there is evidence of a chiefdom level of social stratification in which—unlike big man societies—high social status was inherited rather than achieved. A Locona-phase burial from El Vivero contained a child wearing a circular mica mirror on its forehead, quite probably a sign of high rank (Clark 1991:20–21; see PC.B.529). At Paso de la Amada, a great apsidal structure more than twelve meters in length has been interpreted as a chiefly residence (Blake 1991; Clark 1994). A greenstone celt, quite probably jade, was buried as a dedicatory offering in the center of the earliest house construction (Blake 1991:40, fig. 11a). Notably, greenstone celts constitute one of the more important dedicatory cache items of the Middle Formative Olmec (see PC.B.028PC.B.029, and PC.B.030). Paso de la Amada also contains a Locona-phase ballcourt, one of the earliest-known ballcourts in ancient Mesoamerica (Hill 1996). A fragmentary tecomate ceramic vessel from the site of Cuautémoc, Chiapas, bears the image of a human head with a duck beak (Figure 0.7; see Rosenswig 2003). This convention is found in later Middle Formative as well as in Classic Maya and Aztec iconography (see PC.B.022). For the ancient Maya and Aztec, this being is clearly a wind god as the bringer of rain, and it is quite possible that the Mokaya sherd constitutes the earliest-known example (Figure 0.8).

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Figure 0.7. Early Formative Mokaya tecomate sherd portraying a duck-billed being. Photograph courtesy of Michael D. Coe.

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Figure 0.8. Diagram of the development of duck-billed wind deities in ancient Mesoamerica. Illustration by Karl A. Taube.


The Olmec of Early Formative San Lorenzo

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Figure 0.9. Cerro Manatí. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2006.

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Figure 0.10. The spring at the base of Cerro Manatí. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2006.

Archaeological excavations by Michael D. Coe and Richard A. Diehl (1980) and Ann Cyphers (1997, 1999) at San Lorenzo, Veracruz, have provided crucial insights into the Early Formative development of the Olmec. Composed of the San Lorenzo plateau and the nearby sites of Tenochtitlan and Potrero Nuevo, San Lorenzo appears to have been the preeminent Early Formative Olmec center. The Ojochi phase (1500–1350 BCE) marks the earliest pottery at San Lorenzo, and is roughly contemporaneous with the Barra-phase Mokaya ceramics, with which it shares many traits (Blake et al. 1995:168). The nearby site of El Manatí reveals that, by the Ojochi phase, elaborate rites concerning water, rain, and likely agriculture were already being performed in the Olmec heartland. A freshwater spring at the base of Cerro Manatí was a locus of ritual activity that included the deposition of offerings in the water during much of the Early Formative period. It is important to note that this constitutes the earliest-known site in Mesoamerica featuring a mountain ritual, as the spring water pours directly out of the hill with the offerings placed in the pool below (Figures 0.9 and 0.10).

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Figure 0.11. Child sacrifice excavated at Cerro Manatí. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, Museo Regional de San Andrés Tuxtla, 2019.

One of the most striking finds was child sacrifices (Figure 0.11). According to Ponciano Ortíz C. and María del Carmen Rodríguez (1994:84, 88–89), they are probably an early form of the Aztec practice of offering children to the gods of water and rain, such as was performed atop Mount Tlaloc and at the sacred pool of Pantitlan in Lake Texcoco (see Durán 1971:157, 164–165; Sahagún 1950–1982:2:42–44). Among the more curious offerings were flint blades with tar handles, quite possibly used for human sacrifice (Figure 0.12). Along with jadeite, some of the earliest items placed in the sacred spring were rubber balls (Ortíz C. and Rodríguez 1994, 2000; Rodríguez and Ortíz C. 2008). Although no Early Formative ballcourt has yet been documented for the Olmec heartland, these rubber balls indicate that the ballgame was present even before the florescence of Olmec civilization.The widespread evidence of the ballgame during the Early Formative period, including at Paso de la Amada, El Manatí, San Lorenzo, Tlatilco, and El Opeño, suggests that versions of this game were already present during the preceding Archaic period (7000–2000 BCE). It has recently been noted that the stone-lined feature at Gheo Shih, Oaxaca, dating to the fifth millennium BCE, is probably a simple, open-ended ballcourt (Miller and Taube 1993:27; Taube 1992c:1065). A possible I-shaped ballcourt, strikingly similar to Mesoamerican examples, has recently been reported for coastal Peru at the Initial Period site of Moxeke, dating from approximately 1600 to 1200 BCE (Pozorski and Pozorski 1995). In addition, it established the very clear relation of the ballgame to water ritual and symbolism, as has been discussed in a study concerning the ballgame and ritual boxing in ancient Mesoamerica (Taube 2018b). But of perhaps even greater significance are the offerings of fine jadeite, including jade celts and beads that date to the pre-Olmec Ojochi phase of San Lorenzo (Figure 0.13). Although the use of jadeite is most closely associated with the Middle Formative Olmec, the El Manatí finds reveal that jade (and probably much of its attendant symbolism) were present as early as the Ojochi phase, despite the fact that this material derived from eastern Guatemala, far from the Olmec heartland.

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Figure 0.12. Knives with chapapote tar handles. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2006.

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Figure 0.13. Jade beads found in Ojochi-phase context, El Manatí. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2006.

In many respects, the following Bajío phase (1350–1250 BCE) at San Lorenzo is a continuation of the Ojochi phase, although with the appearance of new vessel forms and evidence of increased population. In addition, it appears that public architecture was being constructed atop the San Lorenzo plateau (Figure 0.14; Coe 1981b:124; Coe and Diehl 1980:2:144). However, the Chicharras phase (1250–1150 BCE) marks a sharp change from the previous two phases and constitutes the true beginning of Olmec civilization. During this proto-Olmec phase, the great San Lorenzo plateau appears to have been greatly modified. Figurines displaying Olmec facial characteristics appear for the first time, along with figurines of belted ballplayers (Coe and Diehl 1980:1:150, figs. 303, 305). In addition, a basalt sculpture fragment found in Chicharras-phase contexts suggests that long-distance transportation and carving of stone monuments—one of the most striking traits of the San Lorenzo Olmec—was already occurring during the Chicharras phase at San Lorenzo (Coe 1981b:128; Coe and Diehl 1980:1:246).

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Figure 0.14. The upper plateau of San Lorenzo, Veracruz. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2019.

The San Lorenzo phase (1150–900 BCE) constitutes the great period of occupation at the site. Among the more striking hallmarks of the San Lorenzo–phase Olmec are basalt colossal heads, with ten currently known for San Lorenzo (Coe and Diehl 1980; Cyphers 2004). While outstanding sculptures in their own right, the colossal heads and other massive basalt monuments at San Lorenzo are especially impressive considering the effort required for their transport. Although weighing from six to fifty metric tons (Cyphers 1994:45; Pool 2007:106), these monuments did not come from nearby stone quarries. Instead, the stone derived from the flanks of Cerro Cintepec, an aerial distance of some sixty kilometers from San Lorenzo (Coe and Diehl 1980:1:294). In terms of the known monuments of San Lorenzo, Cyphers (2004:34) notes that no less than 490 tons of basalt were brought to this site. Replicative studies of the megaliths of Neolithic Europe provide some perspective on the logistics involved in the transport of such massive monuments. During an experiment performed in 1979 at Bougon, France, some 250 men were required to pull and lever a block weighing thirty-two tons a distance of forty meters (Mohen 1989:176–177). Aside from such modern replicative experiments, megaliths of similar size were still being transported in traditional Southeast Asian societies as late as the twentieth century. The detailed ethnography of Nias by Engelbertus Eliza Willem Gerards Schröder (1917) describes the moving of the last major megalith of South Nias, a funerary monument dedicated to the ailing ruler Saonigeho. It required 325 men laboring four days to pull the monument—approximately nine tons—the four kilometers from the quarry to the village (Feldman 1985:61). As in the case of the San Lorenzo plateau, the stone was transported up a steep hill to the village (Figure 0.15). The ability of San Lorenzo rulers to amass and organize the workforce required to transport the monuments from Cerro Cintepec constitutes a public testimony of their personal power and leadership. Aside from denoting the political skill and power of the ruler, the ponderous movement of these great monuments across the landscape may have been an important social and material statement concerning the territorial domain of the San Lorenzo and later La Venta polities.

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Figure 0.15. The moving of the stone of Saonigeho in 1914 in South Nias. Photograph courtesy of the Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, 551Fa92B.

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Figure 0.16. Early Formative ceramic head, Museo Regional de Jalapa. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2019.

It is widely recognized that the great colossal heads of San Lorenzo, La Venta, and other Olmec sites are portraits of rulers. The careful and subtle sculpting of the eyes, mouths, and other features creates the impression of viewing the faces of specific living individuals. An Early Formative Olmec head from a hollow ceramic figure, such as are known for Las Bocas, is clearly a portrait of a then-living person (Figure 0.16). As Coe (1989b:77) notes, portraiture was very rare in the ancient New World and was largely restricted to the Olmec, the Classic Maya, and the Moche of northern Peru. In direct contrast to the roughly contemporaneous people of Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya publicly proclaimed the names and deeds of their kings in monumental sculpture. Colossal heads and thrones strongly indicate that a cult of individual rulership was already fully present at Early Formative San Lorenzo. Although it is uncertain whether the Olmec were at a chiefdom or state level of social complexity, the cost required for the carving and transport of these great stones points to marked social stratification with strongly centralized rulership. The comparison by Timothy Earle of the Olmec to the highly stratified, complex chiefdoms of Hawaii may be especially apt. Earle (1990:76) noted that in contrast to states, the leaders of complex chiefdoms had very generalized roles, with political, religious, military, administrative, and economic functions. Like the great Hawaiian chiefs, Olmec rulers were surely active players in all these domains.

The great power and status of the Olmec rulers at San Lorenzo contrast sharply with what is known about other regions of Early Formative Mesoamerica. In no other area, including the Valley of Mexico, Oaxaca, and the Chiapas Soconusco, is there evidence of such marked social differences and control of wealth and surplus. In a version of the circumscription scenario proposed by Robert L. Carneiro (1970) for the central Andean valley systems, Coe and Diehl (1980:2:147–152; Coe 1981a) suggest that the appropriation of the extremely fertile, annually flooded levee lands by an emergent elite led to the marked differences in status, power, and wealth observed at Olmec San Lorenzo. But although the control of these productive lands implies farming was central to the San Lorenzo economy, it is uncertain what crops were grown. Coe and Diehl cite the common appearance of metates and manos as evidence of corn preparation, although virtually no macrobotanical remains of maize were recovered during their excavations.One exception is a small conical ceramic item containing the impression of a fragmentary cob. Dating to the San Lorenzo B phase, the object is in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. According to Coe and Diehl (1980:2:144), the San Lorenzo Olmec probably grew a variety of staples, including manioc and other root crops, as well as maize.

Investigations in the vicinity of La Venta, Tabasco, have documented maize from at least the beginning of the Early Formative period and perhaps as early as 2250 BCE. William F. Rust and Barbara F. Leyden (1994:192, 199) note that maize use had begun to increase notably by 1150 BCE, and took on an even greater importance during the Middle Formative apogee of La Venta (900–500 BCE). This pattern of increased maize use is also reflected in Olmec art and iconography. Although maize symbolism can be documented for Early Formative San Lorenzo, it is far more pervasive during the Middle Formative period of La Venta (Taube 1996).

The manipulation and control of water was an essential component of elite power at San Lorenzo. Cyphers (1999:165) notes that “the rhythms of the Olmec environment have everything to do with water in all of its manifestations. Rain, fluvial systems, and the water table were all aspects that the elite sought to control one way or another.” The ritual importance of water, and by extension agriculture, is clearly expressed by an elaborate system of basalt drains and related stone sculptures atop the San Lorenzo plateau. G. Ramon Krotser (1973) argues that these stone drains were used in Olmec water rituals and reflect the basic Mesoamerican concern with water and fertility. Similarly, Coe and Diehl (1980:1:393) suggest that this hydraulic system was used in rites of rain magic and propitiation dedicated to water deities. A stone-lined drain from the Middle Formative site of Teopantecuanitlan, Guerrero, indicates such systems were indeed used in agricultural rites. The drain both enters and exits a masonry sunken court lined with four explicit representations of the Olmec maize god (see Figure 15.4a; see Martínez Donjuán 1994:fig. 9.10, 2008, 2010). Fitted with this drain, the courtyard could have been easily filled and emptied of water to serve as a pool for ritual use. Many Mesoamericans are equipped with drains and are oriented to take runoff from slopes above (Taube 2018b). With its highly developed system of stone drains, the San Lorenzo plateau may also have embodied the concept of a fertile, water-filled mountain. San Lorenzo may indeed have been an original altepetl, or “water mountain,” the Postclassic Nahuatl term for a town or city.

Aside from the ceremonial regulation of the drains, the San Lorenzo Olmec also performed water rites on a smaller, almost miniature scale. Excavations by Cyphers (1996b:63, 64, 2004:figs. 84, 115–116, 118–121) at San Lorenzo uncovered several monuments with curiously irregular and convoluted designs resembling heavily water worn stone. One of the sculptures portrays a split face with one half covered by the convoluted motif (Figure 0.17a). It is noteworthy that regions of the convoluted side project out farther than the anthropomorphic face, indicating that this motif is not post-carving mutilation. The top of the head contains a basin with a hole running to the irregular proper right half of the face. Liquid poured into this chamber would run in intricate patterns down the system of gullies, pits, and furrows. Another sculpture contains a basin surrounded by the convoluted motif. Fluid from a central container would pour down the gullies in riverine fashion and pass through two holes penetrating to the underside of the monument. Another still more remarkable monument portrays a squatting jaguar clawing a descending male wearing a bird headdress (Figure 0.17b). In this case, the convoluted form appears as a background to the descending figure; the peculiar dentition of this jaguar is also common in portrayals of the Olmec rain god as well as in later depictions of Tlaloc at Teotihuacan. The convoluted stone motif also occurs on Monuments 1 and 2 from Laguna de los Cerros, which are great heads topped with shallow basins (Figure 0.17c). At least one, if not both, of these monuments portrays the Olmec rain god. Like the two San Lorenzo monuments, these basins were probably for liquid that would trickle down the sides of the heads.David Grove suggests that these cups, carved in bedrock and boulders, were used in Middle Formative water rituals. One example, MCR-8, has gullies running to and from cups in a linear fashion. According to Grove (1987b), this small model may represent Cerro Chalcatzingo with its two principal water runoffs. The pits and channels appearing in Olmec stone sculpture may well have been used for receiving sacrificial blood. In his account of early colonial Nahua religious practices in Guerrero, Ruiz de Alarcón notes that in rites of mountain worship, penitential blood was placed in small pits “like saltcellars” carved in rock (Coe and Whittaker 1982:81).

Olmec fig. 0.17
Figure 0.17. The convoluted cloud or rock motif on Early Formative Olmec stone sculpture: (a) head with a basin at the top, with a hole for releasing liquid on the proper right side of the head, San Lorenzo (drawing by Elizabeth Wahle, after Cyphers 1996b:64); (b) jaguar attacking a descending man, San Lorenzo (drawing by Elizabeth Wahle, after Cyphers 1996b:63); and (c) head with a basin at the top, Laguna de los Cerros Monument 1 (drawing by Elizabeth Wahle, after Fuente 1977a:no. 70).

The San Lorenzo sculpture of the jaguar and its human victim (see Figure 0.17b) suggests that the liquid poured upon this monument was sacrificial blood rather than water, with the blood libation ritually expressing the clawing of the victim. One monument at Chalcatzingo portrays a raining cloud above an avian jaguar devouring a human, as if this act constituted a form of rainmaking (Taube 1995:fig. 24). In later Mesoamerica, particularly bloody forms of human sacrifice—including scaffold sacrifice and decapitation—often constituted forms of rain ritual (Taube 1988b, 1992b:24). It may well be that all Olmec monuments with the convoluted motif were for sacrificial blood offerings. In fact, Alfonso Medellín Zenil (1971) interpreted Laguna de los Cerros Monuments 1 and 2 as Olmec versions of the Aztec cuauhxicallis, stone receptacles for sacrificial hearts (see Taube 2009b).

It has been noted that the San Lorenzo sculpture known as Tenochtitlan Monument 1 portrays a ballplayer atop a bound captive (Bradley and Joralemon 1993; Miller and Taube 1993; Taube 1992c). The seated upper figure wears the costume typical of Olmec ballplayers, including a mirror pectoral and, most importantly, the thick, protective belt used to strike the ball with the hip. Hipball with padded belts was by far the most common form of the Mesaomerican ballgame and continues to be played in Sinaloa to this day (see Leyenaar and Parsons 1988:13–35). The San Lorenzo monument indicates that, as with later Mesoamerican cultures, human sacrifice was to the Olmec an important component of their ballgame ritual. Their game was deeply embedded in rain symbolism, as if the ballgame itself were a rainmaking act, with the din of the bouncing ball representing thunder. A great many Early Formative ballplayer figures wear masks of the Olmec rain god (see Figure 0.7b–c; Bradley 1991:fig. 4; Taube 1995, 2009a). The offering of rubber balls at El Manatí also suggests the identification of the ballgame with rain and water rituals. The aforementioned sunken court at Teopantecuanitlan provides the most compelling evidence for the relationship of the Olmec ballgame to water and agricultural fertility. Along with the stone drain and images of the Olmec maize god, the court also contains a miniature symbolic ballcourt formed of two long and low parallel mounds (Martínez Donjuán 1994, 2008, 2010; Taube 2018b). A remarkable Formative-period vessel in the form of a ballcourt contains a drain for water to pass from the spout into the ballcourt basin, essentially a miniature form of the Teopantecuanitlan sunken court and drain (Borhegyi 1980:fig. 4a–b).

The identification of ballcourts with water and agricultural fertility is well documented for the Classic Maya (Schele and Freidel 1991; Taube 2018b). On the Late Classic–period Tablet of the Foliated Cross at Palenque, Kan Bahlam stands dressed as the tonsured maize god atop growing maize sprouting from a zoomorphic mountain epigraphically labeled yaxal witz nal, “greening maize mountain.” The stepped cleft from which the maize emerges closely resembles a ballcourt profile, recalling the ballcourt within the Teopantecuanitlan court. Linda Schele and David Freidel (1991) have discussed the close relation of the Classic Maya maize god to ballcourt imagery. Stephen D. Houston (1998) notes that many Classic Maya models, or maquetas, of ballcourts are supplied with channels to allow liquid to pour into the sunken courts. The ballgame is also widely identified with agricultural fertility in Late Postclassic Central Mexico. Among the fertility gods appearing in conjunction with the ballgame are Tlaloc, Xochipilli, Xochiquetzal, and the maize god Cinteotl (Stern 1949:69). The Codex Chimalpopoca describes the last lord of Tula, Huemac, playing ball against the rain and lightning gods, the Tlaloque (Bierhorst 1992:156). In one episode of the Aztec migration legend, the Aztec construct a ballcourt at Coatepec. From the center of this miraculous court a spring emerges, allowing the Aztec to irrigate their fields (Stern 1949:65). According to Stern (1949:70–71), the relationship of human sacrifice to the ballgame was directly involved with agricultural fertility in Postclassic Mesoamerica. Rather than being a relatively recent development, the identification of the ballgame with pools of water and agricultural fertility was already highly developed among the Formative Olmec.

Fig. 0.18b
Figure 0.18b. Oblique view of the Cascajal Block, Lomas de Tacamichapa, Veracruz. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2016.

The great wealth and cultural complexity of San Lorenzo immediately raises questions of whether they had complex systems of recording and notation, such as writing. The bar-and-dot system of the Long Count, as well as any evidence of the use of the 260-day divinatory calendar and the 365-day solar year, remains undocumented for the Olmec, not only for Early Formative San Lorenzo but also for later Middle Formative Olmec sites, such as La Venta and Tres Zapotes. But in 1999, Rodríguez and Ortíz received a report of a carved serpentine block in a quarry designated as Cascajal in the municipality of Jáltipan, Veracruz, close to San Lorenzo (Figure 0.18a–c). The serpentine piece has sixty-two lightly incised signs, with some in clear linear fashion, and the surface is slightly sunken in the central portion, suggesting it may be a palimpsest, reused numerous times. Many of the signs can be identified as unequivocally Olmec, including depictions of maize, maize ear fetishes, perforators, and probable sky bands. However, at this point, this text has not been deciphered, and it remains an enigma in terms of its relation to the development of writing systems in later Mesoamerica. What is certain, however, is that it bears no clear or direct relation to the earliest writing of the Zapotec or Maya.

Fig. 0.18a
Figure 0.18a. Michael D. Coe and Richard A. Diehl examining the Cascajal Block, Lomas de Tacamichapa, Veracruz. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2016.

Fig. 0.18c
Figure 0.18c. Direct frontal view of the Cascajal Block, Lomas de Tacamichapa, Veracruz. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2016.

At approximately 900 BCE—equivalent to the beginning of the Middle Formative period—the site of San Lorenzo suffered a significant decline, including the general cessation of monument transport and carving. The reasons for this remain unknown. Coe and Diehl (1980:1:188, 387) interpreted the mutilation of stone monuments on the Group D ridge as a sign of cataclysmic destruction, possibly by invasion or revolt, at the end of the San Lorenzo phase. Excavations by Cyphers (1994:61, 66) at Group D, however, suggest these monuments formed part of a monument workshop, and may reflect re-carving and reuse rather than iconoclastic mutilation. In a similar vein, James B. Porter (1989) notes that at least two (and possibly more) of the colossal heads at San Lorenzo were re-carved from Olmec thrones. But although the breaking of stone monuments at San Lorenzo may reflect the process of re-carving rather than invasion or revolt, the actual events leading to the demise of this site remain poorly understood. Cyphers (1996a:70–71) suggests the demise of San Lorenzo may have been partly related to volcanic events in the Tuxtla Mountains. According to her, these tectonic episodes may not only have covered the region with ash, but, perhaps more importantly, changed the river courses surrounding the site of San Lorenzo.

Despite many decades of systematic research in the Olmec heartland and neighboring regions, major discoveries of Early Formative sites continue. One of these is Cantón Corralito in the southern coastal region of Chiapas (Cheetham 2006, 2010; Cheetham and Coe 2017). The site features ceramic vessels and figurines closely resembling those of San Lorenzo, some locally made and others probably imported from San Lorenzo itself. In addition, in a detailed comparison of excavated greenstone celts from El Manatí and Cantón Corralito, Olaf Jaime-Riverón (2010:125) notes that “at the macroscopic level there is an amazing similarity in the shape of the Cantón Corralito celts and those of the Macayal phase at El Manatí.” In view of the striking similarities between these early sites, David Cheetham (2006) suggests that in many respects Cantón Corralito could be regarded as an Olmec outpost or colony in the Soconusco region of Chiapas. A still more recent discovery is the massive site of Aguada Fénix in the Río San Pedro de Balancán, part of the lower Usumacinta drainage region of Tabasco (Inomata 2019; Triadan 2019). The florescence of the site appears to be roughly the eleventh to ninth century BCE, corresponding to the time between the collapse of San Lorenzo and the development of La Venta. Although the discovery is very recent and the findings still preliminary, this major site promises a great deal of information regarding the Olmec and the early development of Maya civilization.


The Olmec of Middle Formative La Venta

La Venta, Tabasco, is the best-known Olmec site of the Middle Formative period. Bear in mind that this was not a simple shifting of capitals, as La Venta also had a strong Early Formative component, although not of comparable greatness to San Lorenzo. In addition, San Lorenzo and La Venta are by no means the only important Formative sites in the Olmec heartland. Laguna de los Cerros and Tres Zapotes are other major Olmec centers still awaiting intensive archaeological scrutiny (see Pool 2007). It is quite possible that, like the Classic Maya, the Olmec region was a politically complex landscape broken into competing polities with frequently shifting alliances and conflicts. Although it is uncertain that La Venta was the Middle Formative “capital” for the Olmec, it was one of the largest sites at this time. By far the best-known portion of La Venta is Complex A, oriented directly toward the great pyramid known as Complex C (Figure 0.19). Several field seasons of excavations at Complex A provided a detailed understanding of its monumental architecture and elaborate ceremonial activity (Drucker 1952; Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959). Among the most striking traits of Complex A is its elaborate concern with bilateral symmetry, reflected not only in a series of central and paired mounds, but also in the placement of caches and massive offerings buried in the complex. Quite probably this powerful statement of symmetry alludes to the concept of centrality and the world axis.

Fig. 0.19
Figure 0.19. View of La Venta’s Complex C pyramid from Complex A. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2019.

Joyce Marcus (1989:172–173) and F. Kent Reilly III (1994b:227–228) note that for the Olmec, the bar-and-four-dots motif represents the quarters of the cosmos and the central axis mundi, here rendered as a vertical bar (see Figure 18.6a–g). This is in contrast to the related Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerican quincunx, which appears not as a bar but as a central dot surrounded by four others delineating the corners (Figure 0.20a). For the Olmec sign, the two pairs of dots flanking either side of a vertical bar express centrality through bilateral rather than quadrilateral symmetry (Figure 0.20b). In this regard, the bar-and-four-dots motif closely reflects the human body, with the four limbs oriented at the sides of the central torso. For the Olmec, the human body was both a reflection and an expression of the cosmos.

Olmec fig. 0.20
Figure 0.20. Representations of centrality and the four quarters: (a) Mesoamerican quincunx; (b) Olmec bar-and-four-dots motif; and (c–e) incised jade celts with the Olmec maize god as the central axis of the bar-and-four-dots motif. Drawings courtesy of Linda Schele.

One of the more prominent features of Complex A is the area created by Mounds A-4 and A-5, low and long parallel earthworks that together define much of the central part of the complex. According to Reilly (1994b:206), the two mounds may have delineated a great ballcourt. In support of this interpretation, a sculpture of a belted ballplayer was found on the inner side of Mound A-5 during excavations in 1955 (see Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959:111, 202–204, pl. 52a–c); the figure wears a prominent mirror pectoral, a common trait of Early Formative Olmec ballplayers (Coe and Diehl 1980:1:394). In addition, in a recent study concerning ritual boxing and the ballgame in ancient Mesoamerica, I (Taube 2018b) note the frequent orientation of the central axis of ballcourt lanes to pyramidal mounds, some surely used but others perhaps symbolic, much like a spring pool at the base of a hill. Although Mounds A-4 and A-5 may well allude to an Olmec ballcourt, it is by no means certain that their area served as a real court for ballgames. A low tumulus designated Mound A-3 occupies much of the central court area and would certainly impede play. According to Philip Drucker and his fellow excavators (Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959:115), Mound A-3 probably dates to the earliest construction phase of Complex A. In addition, Mounds A-4 and A-5 would define a court some sixty-five meters in length, an exceptionally large area for a Mesoamerican ballcourt.

Although the long parallel mounds of Complex A are perhaps poorly suited for hipball, this may not have been the only ballgame played by the La Venta Olmec. Forms of stickball, or “shinny,” were already present in Mesoamerica during the Early Formative period (Taube 2018b). In fact, hipball may have included sticks or clubs for striking the ball and/or opponents. At El Manatí, the two rubber balls corresponding to the florescence of San Lorenzo were found with wooden staffs (Ortíz C. and Rodríguez 1999:249). These same bladed or paddle-like staffs were found with many of the contemporaneous wooden busts (see Ortíz and Rodríguez 1999:figs. 7–8). It is quite possible they portray ballplayers. Ortíz C. and Rodríguez (1999:246) note that three had circular pectorals, recalling the mirror pectorals commonly appearing with San Lorenzo ballplayers (see Coe and Diehl 1980:1:466, 499, figs. 329–330). Although the Early Formative ballplayer figurines from El Opeño, Michoacán, wear kneepads and sometimes appear in positions typical of hipball, many wield clubs as well. A curving, paddle-like stone example of one such club was also discovered at the site (Fernando 1992:nos. 58–66).Although of a much later date, similar stone paddle-like clubs were excavated in the vicinity of the ballcourt at the Hohokam site of Tres Alamos, Arizona (Tuthill 1947:pl. 28). According to Carr Tuthill (1947:41–42) these items were used in the ballgame, and wooden examples possibly come from the Hohokam site of Casa Grande. A sixteenth-century scene of stickball with ritual drinking appears in the Codex Xolotl, a manuscript from the region of Tezcoco (Taube 2000b:fig. 26).

Olmec fig. 0.21
Figure 0.21. A comparison of rain god figures from La Venta Stela 2 and Tepantitla Mural 2, Teotihuacan: (a) central ruler with a tall headdress flanked by supernaturals wielding curving sticks, La Venta Stela 2 (drawing courtesy of James Porter); and (b) detail of stickball players, Tepantitla Mural 2 (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Fuente 1994:fig. 2).

Just south of the main pyramid, La Venta Stela 2 portrays a series of supernatural figures with thick belts and curving clubs that closely resemble shinny sticks used in native ballgames of North America as well as those of the Tarahumara of Chihuahua (Culin 1907:616–647). The curving ends of these La Venta clubs are well suited for striking a ball lying close to the ground (Figure 0.21a). Wielding a more elaborate form of the stick, the central ruler on the stela also wears a tall headdress, quite like the cylindrical headdresses known for Early Formative ballplayer figurines (see Coe 1965a:figs. 151–152). The positions of the flanking figures—probably forms of the Olmec rain god—are notably similar to those of the stickball players from the Early Classic murals of Tepantitla at Teotihuacan (Figure 0.21b). In contrast to the more widely known hipball game, forms of stickball could be played on much larger courts, easily of the dimensions defined by La Venta Mounds A-4 and A-5.

Olmec fig. 0.22
Figure 0.22. Probable representations of Middle Formative stickball: (a) celt with a figure holding a curving stick and wearing headgear, belt, and hip cloth, Arroyo Pesquero (Medellín Zenil 1971:pl. 58); and (b) central figure with a tall headdress flanked by individuals holding curving sticks, Tres Zapotes Stela A (drawing courtesy of James B. Porter).

The central and flanking figures on La Venta Stela 2 wear headdresses with prominent chin straps. An incised celt from Arroyo Pesquero portrays a man wearing a bound helmet-like headdress with a similar chin strap while wielding a staff or club (Figure 0.22a). In addition, he wears a skirt—probably of leather—covering his thighs and buttocks, a widespread garment of Mesoamerican ballplayers, including Early Formative examples from San Lorenzo, Tlapacoya, and Xochipala (see Coe 1965a:nos. 152, 157; Coe and Diehl 1980:1:fig. 329a; Gay 1972b). Tres Zapotes Stela A, a massive late Olmec monument, portrays a pair of flanking figures with curving sticks facing a central, frontally facing individual (Figure 0.22b). Although badly effaced, he appears to be wearing a tall columnar headdress, recalling the example found on La Venta Stela 2 and on Early Formative ballplayer figurines. Like La Venta Stela 2, this monument may portray a form of the Mesoamerican ballgame.

Fig. 0.23a
Figure 0.23a. Olmec ballplayer with probable club: serpentine statuette of seated ballplayer with staff or club. Drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Easby and Scott 1970:fig. 39.

Fig. 0.23b
Figure 0.23b. Olmec ballplayer with probable club: Early Formative ballplayer with club, El Azuzul. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, Museo Regional de Jalapa, 2019.

A Middle Formative serpentine statuette published in the monumental 1970 exhibition catalogue Before Cortés: Sculpture of Middle America portrays a ballplayer seated cross-legged with a tall headdress—here slightly broken at the top—bound by a chin strap, along with thick shoulder pads and a massive belt typical of ballplayers (Figure 0.23a). As in the case of the Olmec ruler on La Venta Stela 2, he firmly grasps a stick or staff in his hands. Elizabeth Kennedy Easby and John F. Scott (1970:no. 36) note the unusual hand position, which they compare to San Lorenzo Monument 11, remarking that “a bar is held in the same odd way in the left hand, the right hand being held in an unnatural position with the palm upward.” This is precisely how the Early Formative figures from El Azuzul hold the staff or club, left hand atop the bar and right palm upward (Figure 0.23b). The sculptures wear armlets, which are also found with the seated serpentine ballplayer, surely protective garb for the violent game, especially if clubs were wielded (for the El Azuzul figures as ballplayers, see Taube 2018b). Along with the El Azuzul monuments and La Venta Stela 2, there is a jadeite figure holding a bar or club diagonally across his abdomen, once again with the stance of left knuckles up and right palm down, much like wielding a baseball bat right-handed (Princeton University Art Museum 1995:no. 147). On his back is what appears to be some type of conical sack, but this is simply the elaborate conical headdresses donned by ballplayer figurines. During the ballgame itself, these headdresses would be extremely unwieldy, and were probably worn over the back during play. They could have been made from light matting that would also serve as protective gear for the upper part of the shoulders and spine. It is readily apparent that when a club is held horizontally for right-handed individuals, the right palm upward and the left downward is the ideal position to strike. Rather than a “ceremonial bar,” the object wielded by the ruler on La Venta Stela 2 and other cited examples is more likely a club used in the ballgame. Given the rich information concerning this form of stickball, as well as rain symbolism, the ruler on La Venta Stela 2 is portrayed as a ballplayer with the surrounding rain gods above playing the sport with him.

Fig. 0.24a
Figure 0.24a. Bedrock carving pertaining to Monument 1, Chalcatzingo: L-shaped channel leading directly to Monument 1 below. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2019.

Fig. 0.24b
Figure 0.24b. Bedrock carving pertaining to Monument 1, Chalcatzingo: cupules for collecting water. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2019.

Early Formative El Manatí’s sacred mountains and water rituals continued with the Middle Formative Olmec; they are basic components of ancient and modern Mesoamerican religion, as is also the case for the Pueblo people of the American Southwest, and they include the collecting and ritual transference of water from sacred mountain sources (see Schaafsma and Taube 2006). Along with El Manatí, one of the most famous Olmec-related sites with a prominent hill is Chalcatzingo, Morelos, a place filled with petroglyphs in essentially pure Middle Formative Olmec style, much as if artisans had been brought from La Venta. The most renowned of these carvings is Monument 1, featuring a woman holding a cloud motif while seated on the same device in a zoomorphic cave. This terrestrial maw emits elaborate breath scrolls with rain clouds in the broader background, clearly denoting the earth as the source of breath and wind, a theme that can be seen in adjacent carvings of earth crocodiles exhaling rain clouds (Taube 2001). There has been surprisingly little interest, however, in the broader context of this carving in terms of the immediate landscape (Figure 0.24). There is, in fact, a major stone drain, of the same proportions as those known for San Lorenzo and later La Venta, carved directly above (see Stuart 1981:104). Another shallower one leads directly into the crevice running immediately below Monument 1, where there are deep cupules to collect the sacred water supplied from the drains cut into bedrock above. In addition, at the base of the hill there is a seasonal spring with a large boulder that has very similar cupules, obviously for water and rain rituals (Figure 0.25).

Fig. 0.25a
Figure 0.25a. Spring filled with water at the base of Chalcatzingo, in the rainy season. Photograph by Karl A. Taube.

Fig. 0.25b
Figure 0.25b. Spring at the base of Chalcatzingo, in the dry season. Photograph by Karl A. Taube.

Fig. 0.25c
Figure 0.25c. Boulder carved with cupules at the spring at the base of Chalcatzingo. Photograph by Karl A. Taube.

Fig. 0.25d
Figure 0.25d. Boulder carved with cupules at the spring at the base of Chalcatzingo. Photograph by Karl A. Taube.

However, in looking at the broader context of the region, there is a major lake several kilometers below the hill, recalling the Olmec spring at El Manatí. In addition, in the community of Tecaltzingo, Puebla, there are images of Olmec-style rain clouds, including one exhaled by a crocodilian being on a boulder surrounded by a spring (Figure 0.26a; see Dyckerhoff and Prem 1972). Directly above this spring is a pointed hill strikingly similar to that of Early Formative El Manatí, but clearly also related to the contemporaneous mountain rain rituals at Chalcatzingo. There is another spring nearby at Ticuman, Morelos, below a major mountain ridge with a large boulder bearing a petroglyph of the earth crocodile exhaling moist breath (Figure 0.26b–d). There has been no systematic investigation of the pools and lakes at Chalcatzingo, Tecaltzingo, or Ticuman, but it is possible they contain offerings similar to the pool at earlier El Manatí.

Fig. 0.26a
Figure 0.26a. Sacred springs in Middle Formative Mesoamerica: spring at base of hill, Tecaltzingo, Puebla. Photograph by Karl A. Taube.

Fig. 0.26b
Figure 0.26b. Sacred springs in Middle Formative Mesoamerica: spring at Ticuman, Morelos. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Turner.

Fig. 0.26c
Figure 0.26c. Sacred springs in Middle Formative Mesoamerica: petroglyph of boulder adjacent to Ticuman spring with earth crocodile exhaling moist breath. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Turner.

Fig. 0.26d
Figure 0.26d. Sacred springs in Middle Formative Mesoamerica: Olmec-style petroglyph at Ticuman. Drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Córdova Tello 2008:fig. 4.

During the Middle Formative period at La Venta, stone stelae appear for the first time in Mesoamerica. Like the later Protoclassic and Classic Maya examples, these stelae are tabular—broad across but very shallow in depth (Figure 0.27). Porter (1996) notes that many of the Middle Formative La Venta stelae are carved in the form of upright celts, a tradition that continued with the later Classic Maya. Four La Venta stelae, Monuments 25/26, 27, 58, and 66, are not only celtiform but are carved in green schist or gneiss, resembling the well-known greenstone celts of the Middle Formative Olmec. Excavations by Rebecca B. González Lauck (1996) near the La Venta pyramid uncovered other examples of celtiform stelae, with the poll planted in the ground and the bit edge pointed to the sky. In support of the close identification of stelae with celts, Porter (1996:65) cites La Venta Offering 4, a tableau composed of sixteen statuettes standing before six miniature “stelae” in the form of jadeite celts (see Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959:152–161, pls. 30–32; Magaloni Kerpel and Filloy Nadal 2013; Taube 2017b). The vertical planting of celts is a fairly common practice among the Middle Formative Olmec. Running across the centerline of Complex A, La Venta Offering 8 was composed of three groupings of celts planted with their poll ends downward into the earth.

Fig. 0.27
Figure 0.27. Replicas of Olmec stelae immediately south of La Venta pyramid; from left to right: Monument 25/26, Stela 5, and Stela 2. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2019.

A great cache of 213 serpentine celts also along the centerline of Complex A appears to have been planted with their blade bits oriented upward (Drucker 1952:75–76, pl. 15c). This dense cluster of celts resembles the earlier site of La Merced, close to the spring of El Manatí and dating to roughly the same time as the florescence of San Lorenzo (Rodríguez and Ortíz C. 2000). At La Merced, hundreds of serpentine celts of varying size were planted vertically, bits upward, around Monument 1, a much larger celtiform image of the Olmec maize god. Some seventy-two centimeters in total height, La Merced Monument 1 is of transitional size between a massive celt and a small stela. It is also noteworthy that La Merced is Early Formative. At La Merced, the serpentine monument could well be a proto-stela, replicated on a much grander scale at La Venta with stelae including Monument 25/26.

Aside from the Olmec heartland, Middle Formative celt caches are known for the Maya region to the east, including a Middle Formative centerline cache from Mound 20, San Isidro, Chiapas, that contained a series of them placed according to the four cardinal points around a central bowl, with two additional celts on the eastern and western ends bit upward (Lowe 1981:243–245, figs. 6, 12, 13). In addition, another was found in the center of an E Group at the nearby site of Chiapa de Corzo (Bachand, Gallaga Murrieta, and Lowe 2008). At Cival in the Maya lowlands of Guatemala, a complex Middle Formative offering was discovered in another E Group, and features a pit cut into limestone bedrock in cruciform shape, oriented to the four cardinal directions (Estrada-Belli 2006). In this offering were five ollas, or water jars, placed at the four directions and in the center, with vertically placed jadeite celts below each of them, the finest being of translucent jadeite in the very middle atop small riverine cobbles of jadeite. A strikingly similar cache was found many years before during the Harvard Peabody Museum project at Ceibal, in the Pasión region of southern Peten, including an offering in cruciform shape (Smith 1982). Recent excavations directed by Takeshi Inomata at the same site and area have uncovered a great many other caches containing greenstone celts, again suggesting a close relationship between the Olmec and the development of Maya civilization during the Middle Formative period (see Aoyama et al. 2017; Inomata and Triadan 2016).

Ground stone celts clearly played a major role in Olmec ideology (see PC.B.028PC.B.029, and PC.B.030). Although celt symbolism became especially developed during the Middle Formative apogee of La Venta, carefully rendered celts also appear on Monuments 8 and 18 from Early Formative San Lorenzo (Coe and Diehl 1980:1:figs. 431, 446–447). The broken upper surface of Monument 18 portrays the outlines of six celts, all with their bits oriented in the same direction. More than likely, that missing portion had another celt cavity mirroring the one on the opposite side, making a program of a central celt with four others at the corners and two additional ones diagonal to the central axis. The development of celt symbolism among the Olmec surely relates to the appearance of farming and food production in the Formative period, as ground stone axes would have been important tools for clearing forest brush. In comparison to celts with only knapped edges, those with ground stone bits are better suited for cutting tough wood, since the ground edge helps prevent further stone loss from chipping (Phillip Wilke, personal communication, 1995). In Neolithic Europe, ground stone celts also appeared with the development of agriculture. Alasdair Whittle (1995:248–249) remarks that “flint and stone axes were used above all to cut down trees to make clearings and houses for sedentary mixed farmers.” Moreover, these stone axe-heads had a major symbolic role, and commonly appear in Neolithic rock art, including the megalithic tomb at Gavrinis, France (see Figure 21.1; Twohig 1981). In addition, it has been suggested that some European menhir monuments are imitations of upright celts, much like celtiform stelae of the Middle Formative Olmec (Whittle 1995:252–253). As with Neolithic Europe, Olmec celts clearly had a complex number of overlapping, complementary meanings.

Middle Formative caches from La Venta, San Isidro, Chiapa de Corzo, Ceibal, Cival, and other Olmec-related sites contain celts oriented to the four directions, indicating their close identification with the cardinal points (Aoyama et al. 2017; Bachand, Gallaga Murrieta, and Lowe 2008; Drucker 1952:fig. 10, pl. 8; Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959:fig. 51, pl. 47; Inomata 2017; Lowe 1981:figs. 6, 13; Smith 1982:fig. 189). In Olmec iconography, however, they are presented not in cross-fashion to the cardinal directions but at the four intercardinal points, thereby defining the corners of directional sides or world quarters (see Figure 0.20c–e). Nonetheless, whether at the world directions or intercardinal corners, the celts frame and thereby delineate the world center. At La Venta, celt caches are strongly oriented toward the centerline of Complex A. The excavations in 1943 uncovered celts in the centrally oriented Tombs A and E, and in two caches on the centerline (Drucker 1952:39, 75, figs. 9, 22). Offerings 1, 2, 10, and probably 13 of the 1955 excavations are all centerline celt caches (Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959:133–137, 185, 187).

The Olmec identified celts not only with the directions or intercardinal points but also with the pivotal axis mundi. A number of Olmec jadeite celts portray incised scenes of the four corner celts flanking a central figure (see Figure 0.20c–e). Reilly (1994b:227–228) notes these scenes are elaborated versions of the bar-and-four-dots motif (see Figure 0.20b). However, with the four corner celts and central axis, they also symbolize the world axis, with the bit edge pointing vertically into the sky. The previously described greenstone stelae from La Venta Complex C are essentially massive forms of jadeite celts, as both these monuments and the much smaller axes bear representations of the Olmec maize god (Taube 1996). For both the Olmec and Classic Maya, maize constituted a form of the central world tree (Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993:73–74; Reilly 1994b:181–182; Taube 2005, 2007, 2017a).


Maize, Precious Materials, and the Middle Formative Olmec Economy

The highly developed symbolic complex surrounding maize, celts, directions, and the world center appears to have been first elaborated by the Middle Formative Olmec (900–300 BCE). Although much of this symbolism may well have developed during the Early Formative period, it is most fully articulated during the Middle Formative time of La Venta, when maize became the dominant staple of the Olmec. Rust and Leyden note that “the maximum density of recovered maize is thus coincident, in the La Venta period, with the greatest spread of La Venta-related settlement and ceremonial activities, including use of fine-paste ceramics, figurines, and polished greenstone items” (Rust and Leyden 1994:193).

The widespread occurrence of green serpentine and jadeite objects at La Venta clearly pertains to the heightened role of corn in the Middle Formative economy, and for the Olmec, greenstone and quetzal plumes symbolized concentrated embodiments of verdant maize (Taube 1996). The growing religious and economic importance of these precious items represents the development of a wealth finance economy from one based primarily on staples. In their discussion of staple and wealth economies among the Inca, Terence N. D’Altroy and colleagues (1985) note the advantage of wealth items, which, in contrast to agricultural surplus, can be readily transported, stored, and converted. Unlike massive earthworks or monumental basalt sculpture, celts and other greenstone carvings could be easily exchanged or reworked into statuettes, jewelry, and other precious items. Quetzal plumes and other feathers could of course be used in a variety of costumes, as can be seen in Olmec art as well as in monumental depictions of Classic Maya kings. This concept of “emergency conversion” of precious material increased during the Late Postclassic period, when metals could be readily melted and small turquoise tesserae from mosaics could be easily moved from one wooden carving to another, much like “reusable paint” (Taube 2012). At this point, jadeite began to lose its status as a preeminent commodity in ancient Mesoamerica. In contrast to the far softer turquoise, jadeite’s hardness precludes its use as small tesserae in fine mosaic work.

Charlotte Thomson (1975:98) explains that among the Olmec, celts were blanks for carving statuettes and other greenstone objects, so “the polished jadeite celt was the basic unit of Olmec jade exchange.” A number of jade and serpentine statuettes in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection were probably carved from such celts (PC.B.014, PC.B.015,  PC.B.016, PC.B.017, and PC.B.546). It is likely also that Olmec duck-head pendants were fashioned from celts, with the thin, broad bill corresponding to the curving bit of the blade (see PC.B.022). Another Olmec jade pendant form, the “spoon,” is probably derived from celts cut down the center on the long axis, such as the halved celts from Offering 4 at La Venta (see Drucker, Heizer, and Squier 1959:pl. 32; Magaloni Kerpel and Filloy Nadal 2013; Taube 2017b). Probably cut from quartered celts, the Olmec jade “clamshell” pendants closely resemble actual bivalves from the Caribbean (Zachary Hruby, personal communication, 2018). I strongly suspect they were emblematic items of scribes and artists, as they could serve as inkpots or as horizontal supports for a pen or stylus. The remarkable “Shook Panel” from the piedmont of Guatemala features the Olmec maize god wearing one, and of course the later Classic Maya maize deity is a central figure of scribal traditions, holding a cross-sectioned conch for his ink (see K344, K1185, K1257).

Wealth items analogous to forms of primitive money in anthropological studies may already have been present among the Early Formative Olmec of San Lorenzo, as Cyphers (1994:61) unearthed more than eight tons of perforated iron ore cubes. Obtained from sources in Oaxaca and Chiapas, these exotic items may have served not only as beads, but as units of wealth, much like kula ornaments and other forms of Melanesian shell valuables. Although the Middle Formative Olmec continued to carve mirrors and other precious objects from dark iron ore, green became the color of wealth, a tradition that continued until the Spanish conquest (Berdan 1992). According to Peter David Joralemon (1988:38), greenstone celts were symbolic ears of corn, and served as a form of currency among the Olmec (see PC.B.030). Rather than “primitive money,” however, the greenstone celts should best be considered as primitive valuables in traditional economies, much like the shell and stone wealth items exchanged in traditional Melanesia. George Dalton (1977) notes that unlike primitive money, such valuables lacked standardized values and were not used in marketplace transactions for daily goods but rather in contexts of ceremonial exchange.

With their broad range of size and quality, Olmec jade and serpentine celts clearly lacked standardized values. In addition, their obvious symbolic significance, as reflected in art and in their careful placement in caches, suggests that they were not articles of daily currency. Nonetheless, greenstone celts could also have had a powerful economic role in the context of ceremonial exchange. In a discussion of Formative Oaxaca, Kent V. Flannery and James Schoenwetter (1970:144) note that the storage of wealth in the form of primitive valuables served both to mitigate the risk of crop failure and to establish reciprocal links of exchange and alliance. Although famine was probably not a common concern of the Gulf Coast Olmec, primitive valuables could be exchanged for reasons other than crop failure. Paul Bohannan and George Dalton refer to this economic process as “emergency conversion,” since “the emergency may be war, drought, epidemic, or epizootic. In order to survive, additional food must be obtained, and so highly ranked items must be sold off” (Bohannan and Dalton 1962:6). Whatever the crisis, a system of stored convertible wealth would be of great adaptive use to the Formative Olmec.

The impressive celt caches at La Venta, La Merced, Cival, Ceibal, and other Olmec sites strongly suggest hoards of stored wealth. Even more impressive are the massive offerings of La Venta Complex A, which contain hundreds of tons of raw serpentine, probably from Oaxaca. These huge deposits are capped by mosaic pavements of cut serpentine blocks, clearly blanks from which celts could be carved. In other words, these serpentine pavements are essentially more elaborate forms of celt caches. Although the mosaic motif has frequently been identified as a mask, it probably represents a cleft celt marked with the bar-and-four-dots sign for the world center. The four dots are marked with the “double merlon,” the Olmec sign for the color green (Taube 1995:91, 2019b). In other words, the mosaic pavements probably refer to “the green place” (Taube 2019b). According to Elizabeth P. Benson, the mosaic motif represents the World Center, as “it is a central motif, the center on the map, and may perhaps stand for La Venta itself, the long plaza of the site itself centered between the four corners of the world” (Benson 1971:29).

Given the strong Olmec identification of greenstone and quetzal plumes with the axis mundi, the later Maya use of green to represent the world center in color-directional symbolism probably originated in Formative Olmec ideology. The relationship of items of green wealth with the axis mundi surely relates to the cosmological concept of the verdant world tree (for recent discussion of Maya concepts of world trees, see Taube 2017a). According to Paul Wheatley, cities symbolize the pivotal world axis, and “the capital, the axis mundi, was also the point of ontological transition at which divine power entered the world and diffused outwards through the kingdom” (Wheatley 1971:434). However, aside from their cosmological meaning, major Olmec communities were also surely centers in terms of the process of economic redistribution as described by Karl Polanyi (1968:153). For the encircling hinterland populations, such major sites as La Venta were, indeed, “centers,” where the most esteemed items—green maize, quetzal plumes, and jade—were collected, stored, and exchanged. In terms of both the cosmos and the community, green was the color for the central place—the source of abundance and wealth.


Jadeite, Serpentine, and Lapidary Art of the Middle Formative Olmec

Among the more striking traits of the Middle Formative Olmec is the widespread appearance of finely carved objects of jade and serpentine. Although a widely used term, “jade” actually comprises two very distinct types of stone. One of these, nephrite, is an amphibole formed of closely interwoven thread-like crystals of the minerals tremolite and actinolite. Because of this felted, fibrous structure, nephrite frequently has a wood-like grain or “flow” and is somewhat soft to carve but also extremely tough—that is, resistant to breakage. The second type of jade is a pyroxene mineral, jadeite, a sodium aluminum silicate of magnesium. Jadeite is a very dense and hard stone that often displays a grainy, crystalline texture similar to that of quartzite, although finer-grained material with more color and transparency can more closely resemble agate or other silicates when broken. Although harder, jadeite is less tough, and it lacks the flowing grain often found in nephrite jade. Though the principal coloring agent of both nephrite and jadeite is iron, jadeite tends to have more varied and brilliant hues. In rare instances, when chromium substitutes for aluminum in jadeite, a brilliant emerald-green jade is produced (Harlow 1993:10). Whereas nephrite was the traditional jade of ancient China, it remains largely unknown in terms of ancient Mesoamerica although it does indeed exist in the Motagua region of Guatemala, albeit in relatively unattractive grayish whites and greens (Figure 0.28). Strictly speaking, most if not all the Olmec jade objects described in this catalogue are jadeitite—that is, jadeite rock containing more than 90 percent jadeite along with other minerals (see Harlow 1993:13). However, rather than adopting this more accurate but rather cumbersome term, I will refer to jadeitite by the more widely used terms jade and jadeite.

Fig. 0.28
Figure 0.28. Nephrite cobble from the Río El Tambor, Motagua Valley, Guatemala. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2004.

Whereas both nephrite and jadeite are hard stones resistant to steel, serpentine is comparatively soft and readily scratched with an iron point or blade. Serpentine, or more accurately serpentinite, is a metamorphic rock rich in iron and magnesium (Harlow 1996:124). Serpentine varies considerably in color, texture, translucency, and hardness. Many serpentines are light green, with other examples ranging from very dark green to black (see PC.B.008PC.B.009, and PC.B.015). Although much more common than jadeite with major sources throughout Mesoamerica, serpentine was an esteemed material among the Olmec, and entirely overlapped with jade in both symbolic meaning and function, hence the term “cultural jade.” However, as someone who has personally handled and worked jadeite, serpentine, and nephrite over decades, they are all very different stones in terms of carving, as well as in terms of the feel and polish of the finished product. Polished jadeite not only exhibits a brilliant luster but also emits sound when handled or polished. A necklace of large jadeite beads clinks like metal ball bearings when manipulated; even more striking are the celtiform jade belt plaques, which emit a clear ringing tone like a fine bell <add link to audio files>. In terms of jadeite itself, specific types were clearly valued, and in the Middle Formative cache at Cival, Guatemala, the finest celt in translucent “Olmec blue” was found in the very center atop a bed of jadeite stream cobbles (see Estrada-Belli 2006). As I have mentioned, both jadeite and serpentine were wealth items pertaining to the symbolism of verdant maize and agricultural abundance. Moreover, like jadeite, serpentine was frequently carved into celts and other objects, including statuettes and jewelry; the artistic attention and skill frequently lavished on these objects indicate the esteem in which this greenstone was held.

In terms of geological context, jadeite and serpentine are closely related stones. In fact, one of the preconditions of jadeite is the occurrence of serpentinite, or serpentine rock, in areas of major faulting (Harlow 1993:9). As George E. Harlow notes, these geologic conditions have important bearing on the sources of Olmec jade. In comparison to nephrite, jadeite is a far rarer stone, and major sources are only found in some eight to ten regions of the world (Lange 1993:1). According to Harlow (1993), the Motagua Valley of eastern Guatemala is the only region in Mesoamerica possessing the proper mineralogical and fault conditions for jadeite. At present, it constitutes the only documented source of jadeite in Mesoamerica (Foshag and Leslie 1955). Neutron activation studies suggest there are at least two distinct Mesoamerican sources of jadeite (Bishop and Lange 1993; Bishop, Sayre, and Van Zelst 1985). Harlow, however, argues that due to the metamorphic processes involved in creating jadeite, its chemical composition can vary considerably in a single region, because “most jadeites show the effects of shearing and deformation caused by the adjacent and genetically important fault(s), which can and did mechanically mix adjacent rocks. Thus, one must study jadeitites and artifacts as the somewhat nasty rocks they are” (Harlow 1993:17). Although it is conceivable that another jadeite source may eventually be discovered in Mesoamerica, the central Motagua Valley, including the mountain valleys of both the Río Blanco to the north and Río El Tambór drainage to the south, remains the most probable source of Olmec jade (Figure 0.29).

Fig. 0.29
Figure 0.29. View of the lower Río El Tambór with the Motagua Valley in the distance. Photograph by Karl A. Taube, 2004.

It is quite likely that the first jade obtained from the Motagua Valley consisted of stream-tumbled cobbles and boulders rather than material mined from quarries or bedrock sources, known as yacimientos with local jade prospectors in the riverine region. Although the preference for loose river material partly derives from the relative ease of extraction, there is another important reason for its desirability: such river boulders and cobbles tend to be the hardest and purest jade, the “heart of the stone,” with much of the softer, impure, and less consolidated material removed from the central veins of jade due to the constant tumbling in streambeds as alluvial “float.” Thus, in traditional China, the riverine nephrite boulders of Khotan were favored over quarried material, which often was marred by fractures. It was not until the late sixteenth century, during the Ming dynasty, that the Chinese began the systematic quarrying of nephrite (Watt 1980:27).

As previously noted, Thomson (1975:94) suggests that celts were the primary form by which Olmec jade was exchanged and subsequently carved into statuettes and other precious objects. Joralemon (personal communication, 1982) has noted that polished celts are well suited for evaluating stone quality. Not only does the polished surface elucidate the color, texture, and hardness of the jade, but the thin, ground stone edge also reveals its degree of translucency. Many jade celts, including examples in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, still display remnant marks of the manufacturing process, including bifacial percussion and the subsequent stage of pecking and shaping the rounded form (PC.B.028PC.B.029, and PC.B.030).

The initial percussion flaking of a jadeite celt is by no means easy, as this material is far tougher and more resilient than flint or even basalt. When skillfully performed, however, knapping saves a great deal of time and effort in the manufacturing process, as grinding is far more laborious and time-consuming. Stirling suggested that for many Olmec jades “percussion was used in some of the preliminary stages, such as breaking off projections and unwanted pieces, or in separating sections blocked out by sawing” (Stirling 1961:56). One of the finest Olmec jades in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, a fragmentary bust (PC.B.019), displays the precision and sureness with which Pre-Columbian artisans could break jadeite.

Although widely used, the English term carving is somewhat misleading for the working of jadeite and other hard stones. Rather than being cut or gouged in the manner of far softer wood, jade is essentially fashioned with abrasives. Thus, the Chinese phrase for jade work is cho mo, meaning “grinding and polishing” (Lefebvre d’Argencé 1977:10). Because both nephrite and jadeite are harder than steel, metal tools have no use. Of far greater importance is the quality of the abrasive in terms of its hardness and the speed with which it can be applied to the stone, for example, string embedded with a harder grit, or simply a quartz crystal for incising. Excavations at the highland Maya site of Kaminaljuyu uncovered a possible Early Classic jade worker’s burial, complete with unfinished jades and abrasives in the form of coarse quartz sand and pulverized jade (Kidder, Jennings, and Shook 1946:84–85, 120). Readily available quartz and crushed jade were probably also used as grinding agents by Olmec lapidaries. Although not documented for the Olmec, another relatively common grit material possibly included was garnet. Harder than jadeite or quartz, pulverized garnet is a particularly efficient grinding agent. As it happens, at the sources in the Motagua Valley region, jadeite occurs within beds of eclogite, the “mother rock” of jadeite that also bears plentiful amounts of garnet in the stone. Mixed with water into a slurry, such abrasives as quartz sand, crushed jade, or garnet could be used to drill, saw, grind, and polish jade objects.

Olmec lapidary tools were probably relatively simple, including “saws” of stone, wood and flexible string, and various forms of drills. Along with drilling, string-saw cutting with grit is laborious and to this day in the Middle Sepik region among the Abelam is still being used to create “shell money” from giant clams, or Tridacna gigas (Figure 0.30a). Although the Olmec surely used grit with string to cut certain objects (see PC.B.004), the angular cuts of many carvings indicate that they favored using abrasives with a blade-like solid instrument of wood or other material. Drucker (1952:146) interprets a number of gritty sandstone objects at La Venta as stone saws. In these cases, the quartz grains of the sandstone rock served as natural cutting agents.

Fig. 0.30a
Figure 0.30a. Mid-twentieth-century Abelam shellworking in Papua New Guinea: string-sawing of Tridacna gigas with coconut sennit. Reproduced from Bühler 1963.

Fig. 0.30b
Figure 0.30b. Mid-twentieth-century Abelam shellworking in Papua New Guinea: hollow-core drilling with bamboo segment. Reproduced from Bühler 1963.

Whereas Olmec sawing was done with back-and-forth movements, drilling employed a rotary motion that could be performed with considerable speed. The drilled pits and depressions found in many Olmec jade and serpentine carvings reveal a wide variety of bits, from extremely fine and narrow tips to broad and wide forms. At times, large hollow-core drills were also employed, such as from sections of hollow bamboo. The Middle  Sepik Abelam also still use bamboo segments as drills to cut out the central portions of Tridacna shell money (Figure 0.30b), a technique that could have been used to hollow out major Olmec carvings, such as the back of the jadeite mask of the Olmec maize god. Along with creating a large and even bore, hollow-core drills allow the middle section of stone, or plug, to be removed without grinding, saving both time and material. Nonetheless, solid bit drills were also often employed in the manufacturing process. Covarrubias (1957:55) suggests that carefully placed drill holes often served as guides for the sculpture, for determining not only the outlines of such features as the eyes and mouth but also the depth of carving. Many of these holes were retained in finished Olmec carvings for aesthetic effect, particularly in the corners of the mouth and eyes; in some cases, even the holes for marking depth are apparent. An impressive brown jade mask displays the remains of a series of such drill holes in its sunken eye orbit regions (Figure 0.31).

Olmec fig. 0.31
Figure 0.31. Jade mask with remnants of guiding drill holes at the edges of the eye orbits. Reproduced from Princeton University Art Museum 1995:no. 182.

Along with being used to define features and depth during the manufacturing process, drilling was also performed near the final stages of manufacture, commonly to perforate the earlobes and nasal septum. Typically biconical, these drill holes are at times astonishingly small and must have been created with very fine bits. It is curious that although a great deal of effort was exerted in piercing the septums of jade and serpentine statuettes, this is not a common feature of ceramic Olmec figures, despite the fact that it could be done easily in moist clay. The meaning of the drilled septum remains obscure. As in the case of pierced earlobes, a perforated septum may allude to the wearing of jewelry, in this case suspended from the nose. It is also conceivable that the drilling of the septum may have constituted a ritual bestowal of breath or life to the carving. Along with later Maya art, Olmec figures are often represented with bead-like elements in front of their noses (Figure 0.32). For both the Olmec and Maya, these nasal elements can appear either as real ornaments or as more ethereal items floating in front of the face. Although it is quite possible jewelry often was worn through the septum, such beads alluded to precious breath. For the Olmec and later Maya, the floating nasal elements denoted breath and life force (see Houston and Taube 2000:265–273; López Austin 1988:232–236; Thompson 1960:73). Among the Classic Maya, breath could be portrayed as a bead, an earspool, quetzal plumes, flowers, and even serpent heads (Taube 2005, 2019a).

Olmec fig. 0.32
Figure 0.32. Breath elements in ancient Mesoamerican art: (a) Olmec maize god with a tear-like breath device (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Medellín Zenil 1971:no. 67); (b) Olmec flying figure with a circular breath element (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Harmer Rooke Galleries 1984:no. 9); (c) Olmec flying figure with a bead-like breath element (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Benson and Fuente 1996:no. 98); (d) Olmec figure with a tear-like breath form (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Benson and Fuente 1996:no. 115); (e) Olmec figure with a nose bead, La Venta Monument 19 (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Benson and Fuente 1996:no. 17); (f) head of the Olmec maize god with pendant breath elements, Shook Panel (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Miller and Taube 1993:39); (g) Isthmian figure with a circular breath device, La Mojarra Stela 1 (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Winfield Capitaine 1988:fig. 7); (h) Protoclassic Maya figure with a breath element; (i) Protoclassic Maya maize god with a circular breath form, Pomona Flare (Taube 1992b:fig. 20d); (j) Early Classic Maya ruler with a pair of nose beads, Leiden Plaque (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Schele and Miller 1986:pl. 33b); (k) Late Classic Maya maize god with a floral-shaped breath element (Taube 1985:fig. 4a); and (l) Postclassic Itzamna with a beaded breath element (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Codex Dresden, page 9b).

Jade was related not only to life-sustaining maize but also to the life spirit itself. Classic Maya beads, pectorals, earspools, and other jades commonly bore signs denoting breath or wind (see Proskouriakoff 1974:pls. 50a, 65b, 66). Fray Bartolomé de las Casas recorded the ritual performed at the death of a Pokom Maya king, explaining that “when it appears then that some lord is dying, they had ready a precious stone which they placed at his mouth when he appeared to expire, in which they believe took the spirit, and on expiring, they very lightly rubbed his face with it. It takes the breath, soul, or spirit” (Miles 1957:749). Coe (1988:225) notes this rite probably relates to the common pre-Hispanic custom of placing a jade bead in the mouth of the deceased. Excavations in highland Oaxaca have documented this practice during the Early Formative period, roughly contemporaneous with the Olmec San Lorenzo phase (Marcus 1999:figs. 4, 5). Links to the Gulf Coast lowlands are suggested by a flexed male burial from Tomaltepec, Oaxaca. Along with the bead placed in the mouth, this burial contained a greenstone celt and a ceramic vessel resembling the Calzadas Carved Ware of San Lorenzo (Marcus 1999:fig. 4).

Following an initial schematic cutting of a jade object, there are the lengthy stages of grinding and polishing. Drucker (1952:146, pl. 44b) interprets one sandstone artifact at La Venta as a possible grinding stone, and quite likely this material was commonly used for working jade. Thomson rightly notes that the juxtaposition of the initial angular cutting and the gently rounded contours of the grinding process provides much of the aesthetic appeal and power of Olmec statuettes and other jades: “On the fronts of the figures, every attempt is made to obliterate the hard, straight cuts which determine the essential form of the piece. They are softened and obscured by abrading and polishing. In this fact lies the peculiar dialectic of Olmec jade-working form: the tension between the geometric cuts which determine form, and the aesthetic that demanded form be softened, smoothed and rounded” (Thomson 1975:101).

After the initial grinding, the surfaces of Olmec jades were finished by sanding and polishing, the finest abrasive being used for the final mirror-like polish. Although the materials used for the final polish remain unknown, Thomson notes that hematite is currently used as polishing rouge and she suggests some of the red hematite staining found on Olmec jades may derive from the polishing process (Thomson 1975:107). It should be noted that although time-consuming, many of the techniques of jade working are simple: dropping grits of jadeite, quartz, garnet, or other hard stone into a vessel and collecting the uppermost and finest grit for polishing, and then collecting further matter with the coarsest and heaviest material falling first.

A great many Olmec jade and serpentine carvings are marked with light incisions made by repeated scratching with a sharp point, such as the tip of a quartz crystal. In contrast to the highly polished surface of the stone, the incised lines have a dull, matte finish. From replicative experimentation with quartz crystals and Motagua Valley jade, I have found it easier to incise jade before the final mirror polish, as a slightly rougher surface allows better purchase for the quartz tip. Although in many cases the designs incised on Olmec jades are quite intricate, the incision is often surprisingly crude and sketchy. At times, even the overall incised design is rather poorly conceived (see PC.B.024). According to Thomson (1975:106), such incisions may have been performed well after the original manufacture of an object, but in general I believe these crude incisions were created at the same time. In contrast to the initial carving, the rather light and scratchy incisions could be made with relative ease, so instead of being performed by specialists they may have been made subsequently by their owners.

Among the more striking objects carved by the Olmec were jade and serpentine statuettes, recalling the standing greenstone figures of later Classic Teotihuacan (see Berrin and Pasztory 1993:nos. 13–21, 183, 187). The meaning and function of such sculptures remain poorly understood for both cultures, however. Peter T. Furst suggests that the Olmec statuettes of were-jaguars and figures engaged in shamanic transformation may represent shamanic spirit helpers, as they are currently used by the K’iche’ Maya, as well as by the Cuna of Panama and the Chocó of coastal Colombia. Among these contemporary people, sculpted images serve as the embodiments of spirits conjured in rites of divination and curing (Furst 1995:79–80). Although many Olmec stone statuettes may represent particular spirits, including honored ancestors, other greenstone Olmec figures could have served as more generalized conduits for supernatural power. Given the close identification of jade and serpentine with the world axis in Olmec and later Mesoamerican thought, greenstone statues may have embodied the concept of the axis mundi, a means of summoning divine power and abundance. For example, the contemporary Hopi have maize ear fetishes, or tiponi, that represent the world center in kiva ritual. Through the tiponi, the katsinam (rain spirits) enter the kiva (Geertz 1987:17–18). Although the various uses of Olmec greenstone statuettes await further documentation and study, they were likely not simply static portrayals, but served as dynamic components of Olmec ritual, with some perhaps wrapped in sacred bundles.

The fine Olmec jade and serpentine carvings in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection can be admired as great art; in antiquity, these objects were also items of wealth. In part, the value placed on these pieces derived not only from the stone but also from the extraordinary time and effort required for cutting, drilling, grinding, and polishing it. But these precious greenstone objects are also in their very essence evocations of maize and agricultural abundance. For this reason, maize symbolism is one of the more important themes discussed in closer examination of these objects.


Olmec Maize Imagery and Symbolism

Olmec depictions of maize are numerous during the Middle Formative period of La Venta. Joralemon (1971:32–33) describes three important motifs representing ears of corn—banded maize, tripartite maize, and maize with flowing silk (Figure 0.33a–c). Quite frequently, the ear projects out of a V-shaped cleft. Although this cleft has been interpreted as the earth (see Furst 1981:150; Marcus 1989:172), it actually represents the maize husk, or bracts, surrounding the projecting central ear. One celt excavated in a centerline cache at La Venta Complex A portrays the ear and central cob flanked by an outcurving U-shaped element (Figure 0.33d). A slightly later Olmec carving depicts the central ear surrounded by an outward-flaring V-shaped husk (Figure 0.33e). In this case, the side elements are clearly long maize leaves, quite like the cornstalk carried by one of the figures from Chalcatzingo Monument 2 (see Gay 1972a:fig. 17). Moreover, the El Sitio celt explicitly portrays the central ear of corn as a seeded cob emerging from the cleft husk (Figure 0.33f). In later Mesoamerican traditions, including Teotihuacan, the Classic Maya, and the Postclassic Aztec, maize ears frequently appear with the cob surrounded by V-shaped or U-shaped bracts (Figure 0.33g–i). In an independently developed convention, maize ears also appear with V-shaped bracts in Nazca art from the South Coast of Peru (Figure 0.33j).

Olmec fig. 0.33
Figure 0.33. Olmec and other Pre-Columbian representations of maize ears: (a) banded maize, detail of an Arroyo Pesquero incised celt (see Figure 0.20d); (b) tripartite maize sign, detail of a La Venta incised celt (see Figure 0.34a); (c) maize with flowing silk (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Joralemon 1971:fig. 80); (d) maize ear flanked by cleft foliation, detail of a La Venta celt (see Figure 0.34a); (e) maize ear flanked by cleft foliation, detail of a Middle Formative Olmec carved celt (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Fields 1991:fig. 3a); (f) maize ear flanked by maize leaves, El Sitio, Guatemala (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Fields 1991:fig. 2); (g) maize ear with cleft bracts, Early Classic Teotihuacan (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Berrin and Pasztory 1993:no. 76); (h) maize ear in U-shaped bracts, Late Classic Copan (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Fash 1988:fig. 4); (i) maize ear in V-shaped bracts, Late Postclassic Aztec (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Nicholson and Keber 1983:no. 53); and (j) maize ear in V-shaped bracts, Nazca, Peru (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Seler 1902–1923:4:328).

The V-shaped cleft motif, one of the more striking conventions of Olmec art, primarily refers to vegetation and growth, especially of maize. The aforementioned long leaves flanking the central maize ear constitute another form of the vegetal cleft (Figure 0.34a–b). Joralemon (1971:13) first identifies these long cleft elements as vegetation and notes their frequent occurrence as the bifurcated “fangs” of God II, the Olmec maize god. The cleft ends probably represent the tender opening buds or shoots of growing plants. Although the cleft can be rendered as a single line, it also appears with the same broad, V-shaped cleft surrounding maize cobs. Another incised jadeite celt from the centerline of La Venta Complex A portrays the head of the Olmec maize god in profile (Figure 0.34c). The entire head appears as a corn ear surrounded by split foliation, essentially a profile depiction of the cleft U-shaped growth surrounding the La Venta celt of Figure 0.33d and Figure 0.34a. In this case, however, the upper end is straight, with a more open, V-shaped cleft, and most notably, the growth is personified with a profile face. In Olmec sculpture, such personified foliation often occurs as a pair of curving vertical arcs on the sides of faces, as if by bracketing the central region, the face becomes an ear of maize (Figure 0.34c–d). This denotes a specific aspect of the maize deity as a being of immature green growing corn (PC.B.585; Hammond and Taube 2019).

Olmec fig. 0.34
Figure 0.34. The cleft foliation motif in Middle Formative Olmec iconography: (a) maize ear surrounded by a pair of cleft leaves, incised jadeite celt from La Venta (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Diehl 1990:no. 11); (b) maize ear flanked by long cleft leaves (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Fields 1991:fig. 3a); (c) Olmec maize god with a personified cleft leaf flanking its cheek, incised celt from La Venta (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Joralemon 1971:fig. 175); (d) examples of personified cleft foliation; (e) a foliated aspect of the Olmec maize god (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Joralemon 1971:fig. 43); (f) a foliated maize god (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Feuchtwanger 1989:fig. 155); and (g) a frontally facing foliated maize god (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Berjonneau, Deletaille, and Sonnery 1985:pl. 30).

More than a highly valued item of tribute and wealth, corn was a central component of Middle Formative Olmec religion. One of the more common articles wielded in Olmec ritual, the so-called torch, is a maize fetish surrounded by precious feathers, quite probably from the green quetzal (Taube 1996, 2000a). In form and concept, these items are notably similar to the aforementioned Hopi tiponi and related feathered maize ear fetishes of Puebloan ritual, which are frequently decorated with feathers of the Mesoamerican macaw (PC.B.016). The seated figure of San Lorenzo Monument 26 holds a probable Early Formative example of the maize fetish, but they are far more common in Middle Formative sites of the Olmec heartland and other regions of Mesoamerica. Although no archaeological examples of such maize ear fetishes have been documented for Formative Mesoamerica, Carlos Navarrete (1974:figs. 15–17) describes one intact and three fragmentary copies carved in jadeite or serpentine. In the two sculptures with intact upper ends, the object is topped with the head of the Olmec maize god.

While visiting the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, I encountered another example of an Olmec stone maize ear fetish (Figure 0.35). It was collected by a certain H. Fremont in Campeche in 1880, and has been part of the museum’s collection since 1910.I am indebted to William L. and Barbara W. Fash for providing access to the Peabody Museum collection and to Ian Graham and Gloria Greis for their assistance with information regarding the provenance and accession of the Fremont object (Peabody Museum 10-4-20/C-5248). The massive jadeite object is presently 29.5 cm in height. It has suffered substantial loss to its lower end and a portion of the top as well; the original sculpture may have approached almost 40 cm in total height. As in the case of many of the maize fetishes, bound stick-like elements compose the lower portion, here marked on the front with the head of the Olmec maize god sprouting maize out of his cleft brow. Above the head, the upper portion displays the double-merlon sign for “green” and a stylized, frontally facing bird (see Figure 18.6h–k). The crosshatching on all sides of this bulging upper portion probably denotes encircling feathers, and appears on other examples of maize fetishes (see Benson and Fuente 1996:no. 49). A pointed element representing the central cob may have originally been at the broken top portion of the jade fetish, which was lost when it was damaged.

Olmec fig. 0.35
Figure 0.35. A fragmentary jadeite maize ear fetish. Note the partial head of the Olmec maize god at the bottom. Photograph by Hillel Burger; reproduced courtesy of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University.


Olmec Religion

In addition to a complex iconography of the cosmos and agricultural fertility, the Olmec also had a rich array of distinct supernatural beings. The pioneering research by Joralemon (1971, 1976) remains the most ambitious attempt at classifying the many deities appearing in Olmec art. In his first major study, Joralemon (1971) isolates and describes some ten distinct beings, which he labels using Roman numerals. Although these generally appear to be viable and distinct categories, the specific identity of many of the gods remains poorly known. This is partly because most of them have not been traced to the deities of Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerica. Until recently, there has been a virtual “Olmec barrier” between well-known Classic Mesoamerican gods and Formative Olmec gods. In this catalogue, I note the presence of two Classic-period supernaturals, the Old Fire God and the Fat God, in Middle Formative Olmec ideology (see PC.B.018 and PC.B.551). Given the importance of agricultural fertility in Olmec religion, however, it is not surprising that the most pervasive and profound continuity involves the Olmec gods of rain and maize.

Olmec fig. 0.36
Figure 0.36. The evolution of Mesoamerican rain gods: the Zapotec and Mixtec deities (left); the Central Mexican Tlaloc (center); and the Maya Chaak (right). Drawing by Karl A. Taube, adapted from Covarrubias 1957:fig. 22.

In a well-known diagram, Covarrubias (1946a:fig. 4, 1957:fig. 22) traced the various rain and lightning gods of Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerica to an Olmec prototype. In subsequent research, I provide further support for the Covarrubias diagram (Taube 1995, 2009a, 2016a, 2018a), and note that the Maya Chaak, the Zapotec Cocijo, and the Central Mexican Tlaloc can indeed be traced to an Olmec deity, essentially the snarling figure at the base of the Covarrubias diagram (Figure 0.36). The identification of the Olmec rain god was first presented by C. W. Weiant during his discussion of a ceramic figurine fragment from Tres Zapotes, which “bears unmistakable resemblance to the Zapotecan rain god Cocijo as we find him on the earliest of the funerary urns” (Weiant 1943:97). Much like the argument subsequently posited by Covarrubias, Weiant compared this Olmec “rain deity” figurine (Figure 0.37a) to images of Tlaloc as well as Cocijo. For highland Mexico, perhaps the earliest documented example of Tlaloc is a fragmentary ceramic object from La Laguna, Tlaxcala, dating to 600–400 BCE (Carballo 2007:60, fig. 9a). Like many examples of the Olmec rain god, the Tres Zapotes figurine displays long curving canines, a heavily furrowed brow, and eyes that turn sharply downward at the outer corners (Figure 0.37a–f). This powerful face clearly derives from the jaguar—a creature closely identified with the Tlaloc, Cocijo, and Chaak rain gods of later Mesoamerica (Taube 1995, 2009a, 2016a, 2018a). The supporting throne figure of La Venta Monument 59 has the face of the Olmec rain god, with the ears and body of the jaguar. In many cases, Olmec jaguars are represented with a deeply furrowed central brow and eyes that turn down at the outer corners (Figure 0.37g–h). In addition, the Olmec rain god’s maw frequently has central pointed tooth found with Olmec jaguars and with the Zapotec Cocijo (Figure 0.37b–c, f–g, and i–j). The face of the illustrated Protoclassic Cocijo from San José Mogote is virtually identical to one appearing on an Early Formative ballplayer figurine attributed to Tlatilco (Figure 0.37b and j).

Olmec fig. 0.37
Figure 0.37. Examples of the Olmec rain god, jaguars, and the Zapotec Cocijo: (a) figurine head of the Olmec rain god, Tres Zapotes (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Weiant 1943:pl. 29, no. 4); (b) figurine fragment of the Olmec rain god, Tlatilco (Taube 1996:fig. 20a); (c) fragmentary figurine of the Olmec rain god (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Niederberger Betton 1987:fig. 282a); (d) Olmec rain god, Estero Rabón Monument 5 (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Medellín Zenil 1960:pl. 1); (e) Olmec rain god, San Lorenzo Monument 10 (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Coe and Diehl 1980:1:fig. 434); (f) jaguar throne with facial features of the Olmec rain god, La Venta Monument 59 (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Reilly 1994a); (g) jaguar with a serpent in its mouth, Las Bocas (Taube 1996:fig. 20c); (h) anthropomorphized jaguar head, Las Bocas (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Princeton University Art Museum 1995:no. 51); (i) Early Formative jaguar, San Lorenzo (see Figure 0.17b); and (j) ceramic sculpture of Zapotec Cocijo, Monte Albán II, San José Mogote (drawing by Karl A.Taube, after Marcus 1992:fig 9.9).

Another major supernatural Olmec being that can be traced to later Mesoamerican deities is the Olmec maize god (Figure 0.38). First identified by Coe (1962b, 1968:111) and Joralemon (1971:59–66), this deity typically has an ear of corn emerging from the center of his cleft cranium. The head is essentially a personification of the previously described maize ear motif, with a central cob emerging from the split husk (see Figure 0.33; Taube 1996; Taube and Saturno 2008). The Olmec maize god commonly appears on greenstone celts and celtiform stelae from La Venta. In addition, he is frequently surrounded by directional celts, and appears to be a personified form of the world tree as growing maize (see Figure 0.20c–e; Reilly 1994b; Taube 1996, 2017a). Like the Olmec rain god, the maize deity also has distinctive facial features, with almond-shaped eyes that usually slant upward at the outer corners and a prominent pair of upper incisors. These same traits are found among the Classic maize deities of the Maya, Zapotec, and Gulf Coast cultures.

Olmec fig. 0.38
Figure 0.38. The evolution of eastern Mesoamerican maize gods: Zapotec (left); Gulf Coast (center); and Maya (right).

It appears that distinct aspects of the Olmec maize god personified particular stages in the growth cycle of corn (Hammond and Taube 2019; Taube 1996). Whereas the entity referred to as God II in the Joralemon system of deity classification represents the fully matured ear of maize, two other aspects portray the seed and growth of corn. Thus, the infant God IV, the entity previously identified as the rain god by Joralemon (1971), is probably the seed phase of the corn god. Yet another aspect of the Olmec maize god, designated as God VI by Joralemon, embodies green and tender growing corn and appears as the personified form of vegetal growth (see PC.B.585 and PC.B.592; Hammond and Taube 2019). Unlike the mature corn deity, this growing aspect of the Olmec maize god tends to have a cranial cleft without the central ear of corn. Nonetheless, there is considerable overlap between these three aspects of the Olmec maize god. Thus, for example, the four aforementioned maize deity sculptures from Teopantecuanitlan contain attributes of all three beings.

The Olmec rain and maize deities both bear the typical pulled-back upper lip, or snarl, that serves as a virtual hallmark of the Olmec art style, where figures have “a large trapezoidal mouth, known among archaeologists as the ‘Olmec’ or ‘jaguar’ mouth, with the corners drawn downward and a thick, flaring upper lip that gives them a despondent, fierce expression like that of a snarling jaguar” (Covarrubias 1957:56). The jaguar identification appears to be correct, as Olmec jaguars are typically portrayed with similar snarls (see Figure 0.37h–i). However, the meaning of this striking convention remains to be established. Covarrubias (1957:58) suggests the jaguar mouth may allude to a totemic ancestor or to the importance of rain and earth symbolism in Olmec thought. Ignacio Bernal (1969b:98–99) states that the combination of human and jaguar traits may allude to both the totemic ancestor of the rulers and their nahual, or supernatural co-essence. Coe (1965b:751–752) suggests the jaguar features derive from the mythical union of a jaguar and a woman, leading to the Olmec as a race of jaguar people. This theory was based primarily on Stirling’s (1955:19–20) interpretation of two San Lorenzo sculptures, Potrero Nuevo Monument 3 and Tenochtitlan Monument 1, although it is unlikely that either monument portrays copulation (Davis 1978). Whereas Potrero Nuevo Monument 3 evidently portrays a jaguar attacking a hapless human, Tenochtitlan Monument 1 is the previously discussed depiction of a human ballplayer atop a bound victim.

Rather than alluding to an ancestral union of human and jaguar, the feline maw probably marks potent supernatural beings. Along with designating such individuals as wholly otherworldly, the snarling mouth also links supernaturals to the most significant power animal in Mesoamerica. In ancient Mesopotamia, the most important power animal was the bull and, for this reason, deities are designated by a headdress of stacked bull horns (Black and Green 1992:102–103). It is not necessary, however, to look to the Old World for similar conventions. In Chavin and later Moche and Wari iconography of Peru, deities are readily identifiable by their fanged jaguar mouths (Benson 1972:28).

Perhaps the most striking Olmec merging of human and jaguar physiognomy occurs in a sculptural motif commonly referred to as the transformation figure (see PC.B.008PC.B.009, and PC.B.603). According to Furst (1968, 1995), these figures represent the transformation, by ecstatic trance, of the shaman into the jaguar. Recent epigraphic research has revealed a similar concept among the Classic Maya (Grube and Nahm 1994; Houston and Stuart 1989). One Classic Maya hieroglyphic sign serves as a logograph for way, a Maya term signifying a supernatural companion, or co-essence. Like the Olmec transformation figures, the way sign embodies both human and jaguar attributes, being composed of a stylized human face half-covered by a jaguar pelt. Although the Classic Maya texts have not been linked directly to shamanic practices, the term way can denote shamanic transformation among the colonial and contemporary Maya (Houston and Stuart 1989:5–6). Furst (1968, 1995) makes a compelling case that the concept of shamanic transformation was present among the Formative Olmec. It is noteworthy that along with the Olmec portrayal of powerful deities, jaguar attributes mark the shaman in supernatural trance, the otherworldly or sacred aspect of the shaman.


The Olmec Legacy

Thanks to the pioneering work of Stirling, Caso, Covarrubias, and others, it is now apparent that the Olmec was a very early and precocious Mesoamerican culture with enormous economic wealth and political control. Christopher A. Pool (2007:287) notes that “in the lowland river valleys and Tuxtlas piedmont, powerful early rulers erected monumental portraits and depicted themselves and cosmic intermediators on their altar-thrones.” Diehl (2004:188) states that “the Olmec legacy extended far beyond realms of the art and the visual. Indeed the Olmec established or institutionalized many of the basic characteristics of Mesoamerican civilization.” Nonetheless, the role of the Olmec in the development of Mesoamerican civilization continues to be a source of considerable debate. Although Caso (1942a:46) argues that Olmec is the cultura madre of Mesoamerica, others have countered that it is simply one of a series of roughly equivalent culturas hermanas (e.g., Flannery and Marcus 1994; Grove 1989b; Hammond 1988; Niederberger 1996). According to this view, the Olmec were neither earlier nor more advanced than many other societies of Formative Mesoamerica. Although Flannery and Marcus (2000) assert that the concept of an Olmec mother culture is now entirely outdated and discredited, not everyone agrees with this position (e.g., Clark and Pye 2000; Cyphers 1996a:61; Diehl 1996, 2000:25, 2004; Diehl and Coe 1995; Freidel 1995; Taube 1995, 1996, 2000a). Clearly, the importance and extent of Olmec influence in Formative Mesoamerica remains a source of vigorous debate.

Whereas those who question the importance and extent of Olmec influence tend to work in areas outside the Olmec heartland, such as Central Mexico, Oaxaca, and the Maya region, researchers who specialize in the Olmec area prefer to see the Olmec as the first great civilization of Mesoamerica (Coe 1968; Cyphers 1996a; Diehl 1996, 2004; Diehl and Coe 1995). This debate is not simply provincial chauvinism involving who has the earliest and most important site or culture. These perspectives have colored our understanding of the interactions and developments of Formative Mesoamerica. Thus, a priori assumptions regarding the relative importance of the Olmec have often led to simplistic scenarios concerning Olmec “empires” and the unilinear development of Mesoamerican civilizations. David C. Grove (1989b:10) rightly notes that by stressing the primacy of the Olmec, more complex and subtle relationships between Formative cultures can be obscured. For example, Flannery and Marcus (1994:388) posit that at San José Mogote the most direct foreign contact was with the Valley of Mexico, not the Olmec heartland. Moreover, it is clear that the Zapotec, Maya, and other Formative cultures outside the Olmec heartland were not simply diluted Olmec, but people who possessed their own distinct cultural patterns and trajectory.

Much of the more recent data from other regions of Mesoamerica pertains to Early Formative developments, material that was poorly understood at the time of the 1942 Tuxtla Gutiérrez conference. According to Robert J. Sharer (1989:6), many of these newer Early Formative finds outside the Olmec heartland raise serious doubts regarding the supposed primacy of the Olmec and their role in the development of Mesoamerican religion, economics, and society. A great deal of the debate concerning the early development of the Olmec and other Mesoamerican societies revolves around the site of San Lorenzo, the largest and best-known of the Early Formative Olmec sites. Flannery and Marcus (1994:388) argue that the Oaxacan site of San José Mogote is entirely comparable in scale and complexity to San Lorenzo during the Early Formative period. According to them, the efforts devoted to manufacturing the San Lorenzo stone monuments can be equated to the masonry architecture at San José Mogote. Other researchers consider San Lorenzo greater and more complex than San José Mogote and contemporaneous sites outside the Olmec heartland. Cyphers (1996a:70) states that in terms of size and complexity, San Lorenzo was the preeminent site of Early Formative Mesoamerica. In addition, both Cyphers and Clark (n.d.) note that the workforce and effort required to transport and carve the more than eighty known monuments at San Lorenzo is unparalleled in Early Formative Mesoamerica.

During the Early Formative period, Olmec influence outside the heartland is best reflected in ceramics and other portable objects, not monumental carvings. At many Early Formative sites, including Tlatilco, Tlapacoya, Las Bocas, and San José Mogote, Olmec-style motifs commonly appear on pottery vessels. Grove questions the Olmec origins of these Early Formative motifs, however, and prefers the less committed designation of “X Complex.” According to him, these motifs reflect an ideological system shared by many Early Formative cultures (Grove 1989a). In a similar vein, Flannery and Marcus (1994:387) argue that the supposed Early Formative Olmec motifs appeared simultaneously in many regions of Mesoamerica.

In Formative Mesoamerica, there was surely a shared substratum of religious concepts among many distinct groups. However, the motifs and style of the X Complex seem too specific and arbitrary to be simultaneously derived from different sources. For example, Paul F. Healy (1974) describes an Early Formative Olmec-style vessel from a cave near Trujillo, in northeastern Honduras. The motif incised on the cylindrical black vase is the head of a supernatural centipede, a being that commonly appears on Early Formative ceramic vessels attributed to Las Bocas, Puebla (Taube 2003). The distance between Las Bocas and the Honduran occurrence of this highly specific motif is some 1,400 kilometers, with the Olmec heartland squarely between the two areas. Barbara L. Stark (2000:42) also considers these X Complex motifs to derive from a single specific area, because “a series of independent societies sporadically interacting over great distances is unlikely to devise and adopt a consistent abstract symbolic system without a reference site or region.” According to Stark, the widespread distribution of these motifs reflects a conscious emulation of San Lorenzo and the early Gulf Coast Olmec. Similarly, Clark and Mary E. Pye (2000:241) consider the Olmec the ultimate source for many of the incised motifs appearing on Early Formative ceramic vessels from Central Mexico and Oaxaca. The majority of the Early Formative X Complex motifs are best regarded as deriving from the Olmec heartland rather than being an unintentional and coincidental development shared by many “sister” communities of Early Formative Mesoamerica. The only places where such motifs are celebrated on monumental stone sculpture are at San Lorenzo and other Early Formative sites of the Olmec heartland. Although it is another matter to argue that this demonstrates that the motifs originated in the Olmec area, no other Formative culture celebrated this iconography on such a scale.

While much of the perceived Olmec influence in Early Formative Mesoamerica appears on locally made pottery and small portable goods, Olmec influence was much more formalized during the Middle Formative apogee of La Venta. In this period, monumental sculpture in pure Olmec style appears over much of Mesoamerica, including the Mexican states of Guerrero, Morelos, and Chiapas, as well as in Guatemala and El Salvador. Notably, many of these monumental sculptures are not simply provincial emulations of foreign Olmec influence, but seem to have been carved by sculptors trained in Olmec artistic canons and techniques. Grove (2000:277) says that “because there are no known antecedents to monumental art in Mesoamerica other than those of the Gulf Coast, the carvings created at the Pacific Coast and Central Mexican sites were most probably produced using a technology ultimately derived from Olmec roots. . . . The additional fact that the non–Gulf Coast monuments adhere to many of the basic stylistic canons of Olmec monumental art reinforces that observation.” I have noted (Taube 1995, 1996, 2000a) that much of the imagery appearing on these Middle Formative monuments concerns agricultural fertility, maize, and exotic articles of wealth, including jade and quetzal plumes. The intentional distribution of Middle Formative Olmec art and iconography outside the Olmec heartland probably directly pertained to the acquisition of exotic goods. Kenneth G. Hirth (1978) suggests both Chalcatzingo and sites in the Maya area exhibiting Olmec sculpture were gateway communities for securing valuables from hinterland areas.

According to Grove (1989a:146), Olmec exchange networks became increasingly formalized during the Middle Formative period to acquire rare stones and other precious elite commodities. One important means by which the Middle Formative Olmec secured distant exchange contacts was through their complex ideology and ceremonialism involving maize and related wealth items (Taube 1996). The majority of the well-known Olmec sculptures found outside the Olmec heartland concern this religious agricultural complex. For example, maize ear torch fetishes can be found at such distant sites as Chalchuapa, El Salvador, and Teopantecuanitlan, Guerrero (Figure 0.39). The highland Chiapas site of Xoc portrays a supernatural figure holding a maize ear fetish with one hand and a large tabular device in the other. Marked with a growing maize plant and horizontal lashing, this tabular form probably represents an Olmec stela with a maize stalk bearing four ears of corn with pendant maize silk. For the aforementioned Monument 1 scene from Chalcatzingo, the woman in the cave wears two quetzals in her headdress, precious birds decidedly foreign to highland Morelos. In addition, a pair of male quetzals appears in Chalcatzingo Monument 12 relief, here with a flying macaw and a human figure holding the torch maize fetish.

Olmec fig. 0.39
Figure 0.39. Olmec maize iconography in Middle Formative Mesoamerica: (a) striding figure with “torch” maize fetish, Chalchuapa Monument 12, Figure B (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Anderson 1978:fig. 8); (b) striding figure holding maize ear fetish and probable stela marked with maize plant, Xoc relief (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Ekholm-Miller 1973:figs. 9, 14); and (c) flying figure, “El Volador,” holding maize ear fetish, Chalcatzingo Monument 12 (drawing by Karl A. Taube, after Angulo V. 1987:fig. 10.19).

The sunken courtyard at Teopantecuanitlan, Guerrero, contains perhaps the most elaborate portrayal of Olmec maize iconography outside the Olmec heartland. Four images of the Olmec maize god grasping maize fetishes project above the walls flanking the central effigy ballcourt, effectively creating the bar-and-four-dots motif, with the alley serving as the central vertical bar of the world axis (Martínez Donjuán 1994:fig. 9.10; Taube 2018b). The double-merlon motif appears not only on the faces of the four maize gods but is replicated on a larger scale by their shadows on the eastern and western sides of the court (Reilly 1994:254). With its double-merlon signs, maize god images, and aqueduct system, the Teopantecuanitlan court is truly the “green place” (Taube 2019b). The sunken court at Teopantecuanitlan could have served as a demonstration center for celebrating the ritual agricultural abilities of the Middle Formative Olmec. Rather than conquest and military power, the primary message of Olmec rulership is abundance and wealth. It is the elaborate symbolism of agricultural fertility and wealth that constitutes the most profound contribution of the Olmec to later cultures of Mesoamerica (Taube 1995, 1996).

During the fifth century BCE, La Venta experienced a major decline in construction activity. Although this marks the end of Olmec culture, it was by no means the abrupt disappearance of a now-lost race. Though many distinguishing characteristics of the Olmec—the striking art style, the highly developed carving and the use of fine jade, and the particular ceramic types—were no longer present, the people surely were. It has been argued that the Olmec spoke Mixe-Zoquean, a language family still spoken in the Olmec heartland (Campbell and Kaufman 1976). A number of Olmec sites show continued occupation and monumental construction after the Middle Formative period. Some monuments at La Venta, such as Altar 6 and Monument 13, the so-called Ambassador Stone, are probably Late Formative sculptures (Fuente 1977a:nos. 64, 67). An especially notable site is Tres Zapotes, where the major occupation and most monuments are post-Olmec, including its famed Stela C (Pool 2000, 2007:250–255). One monument in late but pure Olmec style is Tres Zapotes Stela A. Five meters in height, this massive monument with a possible ballgame scene portrays at its base a deity head which Pool (2007:251) notes has a prominent pair of triangular shark teeth. Philip J. Arnold (2005) notes that La Venta Monument 63 may well constitute an exceptionally early form of the widespread Mesoamerican myth of the creation of the world by destroying the primordial earth monster, known as Cipactli or Tlaltecuhtli for the contact-period Aztec and Itzam Cab Ain for the contemporaneous Yucatec Maya (Taube 1989b). Clearly in subsequent Late Formative or Late Preclassic “Izapan style,” Tres Zapotes Monument is an elaborately carved basin or trough with battling figures surrounded by swirls of wind or water. Dominating the scene is a zoomorphic figure with talons in the form of serpent heads that seem to emit streams of blood. The face of this creature bears a striking resemblance to the being at the base of Stela A, and both may depict the earth monster, with Monument C depicting the mythic battle. If this is indeed the case, La Venta Monument 63 and Tres Zapotes Stela A and Monument C demonstrate the continuity of creation mythology from the Olmec to later Mesoamerican civilizations.

In terms of the relation of Olmec religion to later Mesoamerican religious traditions, one of the most striking discoveries has been the murals at San Bartolo, in the northeastern Peten of Guatemala (Saturno, Taube, and Stuart 2005; Taube and Saturno 2008; Taube et al. 2010). The mural chamber of Pinturas Sub-1a contains a remarkable corpus of Maya creation mythology dating to the first century BCE with the central figure and “culture hero” being the maize god. In contrast to all the other figures in these complex scenes, this deity stands out as having facial features that clearly bear traits of what I previously identified as the Olmec maize god, with perhaps the closest parallel in Olmec art being the life-size jadeite mask at Dumbarton Oaks, arguably one of the most important and striking pieces in the Olmec collection (PC.B.020; see Saturno, Taube, and Stuart 2005:fig. 19e; Taube and Saturno 2008:fig. 4b). Rather than being merely a passive acceptance of earlier Olmec traditions, it is more than likely the Late Preclassic Maya at San Bartolo, Cival, and other sites evoked the maize god as an ancient culture hero squarely related to the earlier Olmec and the maize deity. Olmec jade “heirlooms” are well known for the Classic and even Postclassic Maya, and this could have included masks such as the magnificent example at Dumbarton Oaks.

Excavations by Boris Beltrán in earlier construction phases of Pinturas at San Bartolo recovered a still earlier portrayal of the Maya maize god, in this case dating to the fourth century BCE. The mural fragment was also found with a Maya text, which is at this point the earliest version of Maya writing known (Taube and Saturno 2008:fig. 14a). The very angular and stylized script is quite distinct from the later writing in the Pinturas Sub-1a mural chamber several centuries later, but the maize deity is virtually identical to the seven known examples from the North and West Wall murals from Sub-1a (Figure 0.40; Taube and Saturno 2008:fig. 14b). In other words, while there was a rapid change in Maya epigraphic style, this was not the case for the maize deity, which at the fourth century BCE is also strikingly similar to the Olmec maize god of only a century of so before. Thus, there is virtually no gap or “black box” between the Olmec maize deity and that of the later Maya.

Fig. 0.40
Figure 0.40. Maya maize god mural fragment from San Bartolo, Guatemala. Reproduced from Taube and Saturno 2008.

Mention has been made of Tres Zapotes, including Stela C, which is probably a local portrayal of the Late Formative maize deity. Two other sculptures from the former Olmec heartland, the Alvarado and El Mesón stelae, are also probably Late Formative carvings. Along with Tres Zapotes Stela C, these monuments display Olmec-derived traits (Covarrubias 1957:figs. 29, 68). The Alvarado Stela is also noteworthy for its hieroglyphic text (see Figure 34.1), which has the same script as on La Mojarra Stela 1 and the Tuxtla Statuette (Figure 36.2c; see Winfield Capitaine 1988). However, the Long Count dates found on these two examples place them in the mid-second century CE, probably well after the carving of the Alvarado Stela. Although the Tuxtla Statuette and La Mojarra Stela 1 are clearly not Maya, they only display a few overt Olmec traits. The same can be said for the highly developed writing system, which is entirely distinct from early Maya writing and has no known Olmec precursor, including the text on the aforementioned Cascajal Block. It appears that both the La Mojarra script and the Long Count system were post-Olmec developments in the former Olmec heartland.

We can readily relate Late Formative monuments from the Isthmian area to earlier Olmec sculpture, but Olmec influence can also be detected in many subsequent Mesoamerican cultures. As noted by Covarrubias (1942), Caso (1942a), and others, it is possible to relate certain aspects of Zapotec, Teotihuacan, and Maya art to more ancient Olmec conventions. In comparison to Teotihuacan and the Zapotec, early Maya art is perhaps most similar to that of the ancient Olmec. One Maya monument in the Etnografisch Museum in Antwerp portrays a standing ruler with strong Olmec features, including an extended upper lip (Figure 0.41). Although this stela was previously identified as Early Classic Zapotec (Etnografisch Museum 1967:no. 106), the style and hieroglyphic text identify it as Maya (Boot 1999). The flexed, paw-like hands notably resemble the feet on Kaminaljuyu Stelae 4 and 19, which Lee Allen Parsons (1986:30, 121) regards as Late Formative “Olmecoid” monuments. The flap partly covering the left forearm also occurs on Silhouetted Relief 4 from Kaminaljuyu (see Parsons 1986:no. 154). Although ERIK Boot (1999:113) suggests that the monument derives from the Maya highlands or southern Pacific coast and piedmont area, its limestone composition suggests the Maya lowlands. Moreover, the back and sides of the stela have patches of stucco formed of marine shell, which suggests a lowland coastal region with relatively little limestone, such as the Classic site of Comalcalco, Tabasco, which has monumental buildings of fired brick and shell stucco. It is quite possible that the Antwerp monument dates to as early as the second century BCE, making it among the earliest Maya monuments with a hieroglyphic inscription.

Olmec fig. 0.41
Figure 0.41. Late Formative or Protoclassic stela of a Maya ruler with Olmec-style features. Photograph courtesy of the Etnografisch Museum, Antwerp.

It is far beyond the scope and focus of this catalogue to delineate the many traits shared between the Olmec and the later Protoclassic and Classic Maya, but among the more striking are the use of stelae, stone thrones, particular body poses, portraiture, bloodletting, and the cult of rulership, including the identification of the ruler with the pivotal world axis. In addition, two of the most valued materials of the Middle Formative Olmec—jade and quetzal plumes—continued to be the preeminent precious materials among the ancient Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures. In fact, in the art of Classic Mesoamerica, including Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, and the Maya region, jade beads and other items are sometimes depicted with Olmec-style facial features (Reents-Budet 1988:fig. 1c; Umberger 1987:64).

Although the occurrence of Olmec features on Classic jade objects might be partly explained by the documented presence of Olmec heirlooms among subsequent Mesoamerican societies, it may be an intentional allusion to earlier honored traditions, as has been mentioned with portrayals of the Maya maize god at San Bartolo. Researchers have generally viewed the continuity of Olmec traits in later Mesoamerica as the result of historical happenstance—that is, subsequent societies were the passive inheritors of earlier traditions. It is increasingly apparent, however, that Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies intentionally evoked earlier hallowed cultures and traditions: the art and architecture of the Late Postclassic Aztec contains clear archaistic allusions to such renowned earlier centers as Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, and Tula (López Luján 1989; Matos Moctezuma and López Luján 1993; Umberger 1987). In a similar manner, Late Formative, Protoclassic, and Classic Mesoamerican societies may have emulated the earlier art and traditions of the Olmec, who may have been regarded as the canonical origin of many aspects of Mesoamerican ideology and statecraft.

Since the first publication of an Olmec object by José María Melgar y Serrano (1869), much has been learned about the Olmec and their role in the development of ancient Mesoamerican civilization. Rather than detracting from the air of mystery surrounding the Olmec, this heightened understanding calls attention to a major paradox. In terms of stylistic development, technical mastery, and sheer aesthetics, Olmec art is among the most compelling of ancient Mesoamerica. No less impressive is the expenditure of effort required to move and carve Olmec monumental sculpture, which continues to proclaim the great political power and wealth accrued by Olmec centers and their rulers. Moreover, Olmec influence extended over much of Formative Mesoamerica, with Olmec-style monuments ranging from western El Salvador to western Guerrero, Mexico, an aerial distance of some 1,200 kilometers. But although these achievements are on par with what is known of later Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerica, the Olmec are exceptionally old, one of the earliest complex societies of ancient Mesoamerica. This precocious quality constitutes one of the most striking and intriguing aspects of Olmec archaeology.

Although the Olmec stand out as special and unique in Formative Mesoamerica, they should by no means be considered strange. In many ways, our perception of the Olmec continues to suffer from the same notion of strangeness that so heavily influenced Classic Maya research during much of the past century. Until the epigraphic breakthroughs of Heinrich Berlin (1958), Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1960), and others, the Classic Maya were generally thought to be an unusually peaceful people run by a rather detached priestly elite far more concerned with astronomy and astrology than with war, marriage, and political alliance. Whereas the Classic Maya can now be seen in the sharper light of historical reality, the Olmec remain an elusive and mysterious people. Along with their powerful art style, the Olmec seem concerned with monumental carving and ritual offerings to the point of obsession. Our understanding of the Olmec is gradually changing, however. Some of the more important gods and even some of the basic Olmec conceptions of the universe can now be traced to later Mesoamerican traditions. Along with an increased understanding of Olmec art and religion, we are gaining insight into Olmec ecology and economics, and it is clear that much of Olmec religion is based on such here-and-now concerns as agricultural abundance and material wealth. The Olmec elite were clearly able to manipulate and exchange vast amounts of surplus and material riches. The burial of jade celts, raw serpentine, and other rare goods at La Venta and other centers probably reflects hoarding and storage as much as permanent offerings to the earth. As powerful role models of agricultural success and wealth, the Olmec were responsible for the dissemination of elaborate farming ritual and symbolism over much of Formative Mesoamerica.